The Painful Hand-Off (11am)
Topic: Life Phase Scripture: Psalm 65–65, 2 Timothy 4:6–4:8
On Sunday, May 22, I preached in my final worship service for Highland Presbyterian Church. It was a day filled with deep memory and that bittersweet mixture of sadness and joy that we experience at every moment of commencement in our lives. The youth choir sang “Everything There Is a Season”, I preached a sermon about what it means to be called to the Lord’s service, and the church presented me with gifts filled with tremendous sentimental value. That afternoon would also be my ordination service. It was a really moving day. And on that day I had the chance to really think about where I was stepping from and where I would be stepping toward.
It reminded me a lot of a relay race. I had run that race in Lancaster for 8 years and had loved it. But now came the point where that portion of my race was ending and it was time for me to hand-off. While my family and I were filled with anticipation and excitement for what was to come, in truth it was somewhat of a painful hand-off.
Geographically, there would be pain. I was giving up cheesesteaks and Philadelphia sports for deep-dish pizza and a region of ravenous Cubs fans and Hancock Stadium. We were moving away from family, both by blood and by heart, to enter into a new community and create bonds that would tie us to this place. We’d leave behind proximity to the ocean for a view of the sky that made it seem as large as the ocean itself.
The hand-off for ministry was the most interesting part of the process for me, though. I don’t think my heart was prepared for the reassignment of faithfulness I was being called toward. Don’t get me wrong, I see a lot of benefit in being a pastor versus being a youth worker. For one thing, I actually get to watch football on Sundays. I don’t have to worry about being pranked by the people I work with. Not yet, anyway. And I never have to tell people in my small group or Sunday school classes to put on deodorant. But on that Sunday in May I found myself lamenting slightly.
God had used me in that place and that form of ministry for close to a decade. I had developed deep connections with not only students but entire families. I had found a stride and rhythm where my job was nearly effortless. I love teenagers and the chaotically honest and beautiful space that is youth ministry. But the Lord was calling me to move to a new space and place. And that meant leaving the one I was in. And even that, knowing that I was leaving and that the ministry would be entrusted to a new leader, caused me some anxiety. I worried about the investment I had made and what would become of it. In truth, I still do.
Every single one of us experiences moments like this. Whether it’s leaving a job we spent years at, moving to a new area, or seeing a child off to college…life includes moments that are painful hand-offs where we see one thing ending as something new begins. Not even Paul, one of the most influential figures in all of Scripture, was immune to this reality. That’s the place, on the brink of a painful hand-off, where we find Paul in the end of 2 Timothy.
Read 2 Timothy 4:6-18.
Paul is nearing the end at this point in our reading. Not just the end of his letter and the end of his training of Timothy but the end of his life as well. He sees that end coming. And so he finishes this letter with a personal and sobering out-pouring. One writer called our text the “most intensely personal paragraph in the whole letter.” Our text even begins with that: Paul telling Timothy that he is being poured out like a drink offering. We don’t do drink offerings anymore but it’s a concept from the Old Testament where the finest wine is poured out and given as a sacrifice to God. Paul is declaring that the best and remainder of his life is being poured out and that his cup will soon be empty. In many ways, this can be seen as a part of Paul’s last will and testament.
And Paul is an inspiration here for us. You see, Paul isn’t finishing out his days and writing this letter while over-looking some ocean front or surrounded by close friends and family. He’s in a harsh, cold prison. His final days aren’t what we would consider a strong example of the golden years. But for Paul, he is exactly where he needs to be. He shares with Timothy how he feels like he has done all he has been called to do for the Lord.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Paul is satisfied. He looks back on his efforts and what the Lord has done through him and he finds peace and warmth there even though his surroundings are cold and confining. He speaks of his ministry with the truth that it included labor. His life and work wasn’t easy. Inspirational, absolutely. But Paul had a rough go of it for most of the time he served Christ. And for Paul, there’s not even the self-declaration of victory. He doesn’t say he won the fight or won the race. Just that he fought and finished.
Thomas Oden remarks on Paul’s words. He says, “Paul’s ministry had been like a difficult marathon in which the last few belabored steps were being taken. The goal seemed so very near that the verb gives the appearance of completion already – the course is finished. The runner’s chest is just to the point of touching the ribbon. The gospel has been proclaimed to the nations. The energy of the metaphor was fixed upon finishing, not yet winning or triumphing or being crowned. It is no small achievement just to finish a marathon.”
Paul remarks on how much effort it took for him to do the work that he loved, how hard it was at times to be the person God called him to be. That’s why this hand-off is painful for Paul. The reason any hand-off or time of transition is hard is because of the investment that had been put into that previous endeavor. This is why me leaving my last church was still difficult even though it was exactly what I wanted. I’d invested time, energy, and a lot of my personality into that youth ministry role and that church in general. But that pain doesn’t stop us from doing the hand-off. It doesn’t matter how efficiently and flawlessly a runner completes their leg of a relay race. They still can’t come to the hand-off point and say, “No, I’m good. I’ve got this. I really love this race.” At some point, their effort must diminish so that the effort of another can contribute to the task. John the Baptist is the living example of this. Yeah, the guy ate bugs and probably looked like the caveman from those old Geico commercials but he had a following. People came to him for wisdom and teaching and to be baptized, hence the name. But when Christ came on the scene John’s response was as inspirational as it was iconic: I must decrease so that he may increase. He didn’t ask Jesus to ride the pine for a little until he needed a break. He knew his role and he saw the moment for the hand-off.
For Paul, that realization came alongside the fading of his earthly life. Paul goes on in verse 8 to describe what is in store for him and the crown of righteousness he will receive. Paul’s life is closing and he is anticipating that moment where we will see the face of Christ again. The very face that called him out and struck him blind on his way to Damascus was the very face Paul desired to encounter again. Paul’s recorded life within Scripture is one of intense conviction, stark humility, and profound influence. And at the end of his life Paul is most looking forward to encountering Christ once again. Throughout his letters Paul encourages his readers to not fear death but see it as gaining the ability to enter the presence of God. Would it be that we would approach the end of our lives in much the same way.
The next string of verses from 9-15 are so shockingly unexciting that it actually causes me to smile when I read them. I don’t call them unremarkable as if they can be ignored but rather because they are just so very human. Paul wants company! He wants visitors. He misses the people he cares about. And so he gives a list of people who should come visit him. And he even requests items be brought to him. Like a person held up in a hospital room for a few days, Paul wants some of the things that are meaningful to him and that will help him pass the time. He wants his cloak, and scrolls, and parchments. Those are human interactions. How many of you have ever left a hoodie or a jacket at a friend’s house when you visited them? Congratulations. You now have something in common with the guy who wrote most of the New Testament. It’s important for us to really accept that Paul, while extraordinary in his ministry was really just as human and normal as you and I.
When we accept that, I believe it becomes easier for us to grapple with and practice the things he preaches in his letters and through his life. And I think it prepares us for the painful hand-offs we will experience in our lives. At the end of Paul’s life and ministry he speaks with confidence how the Lord stood by him even when no one else was there. Paul shares with, what I believe to be, some measure of pride and joy that God proclaimed a message of grace through Paul. And the Lord protected him from all the attacks of the enemy and will bring him home to be with him. You see, Paul has total confidence in the goodness of God. He believes the message of grace he preached to so many. Even though he is facing a painful hand-off, his faith is not shaken.
And so the question comes to all of us: how will we endure the painful hand-offs we experience? Some of us have already had to endure a few. More will come. In our families, our careers, our friendships, even our priorities. And, of course, there is the final hand-off when we leave this life. How will you, me, us…how will our faith measure when those moments come?
Paul’s life was filled with the mundane and the incredible. Blessing and tragedy. Loved ones and enemies. Plenty and poverty. His story is no different than ours. And neither does the way we handle the painful hand-offs of life. For Paul, this hand-off to Timothy meant passing a treasure into the hands and care of another. How is that different than the morning we drop our child off at school for their first day or drive away from that campus when our little baby now turned young adult begins the college journey? Paul had to recognize hours, days, months of blood, sweat, energy, passion, tears, and joy were now becoming the responsibility of another who would only inherit that product and not the process that brought that ministry to life. Much the same way we may one day have to hand over the keys to a house we built, a business we created, or even a life savings we’ve accumulated. We pass that which we have made and not all that went into its creation.
I’m no longer the youth director at Highland Presbyterian Church. I had to hand that off. One of my former interns, Adam, is the interim youth director. I passed off years of relationships, training, presence, investment, and ministry to someone who had very little role in seeing that become what it was when I left. But I trust the Lord who allowed me to be faithful in that church because He is the God that has called me here. The time came and the fruit of that painful hand-off is my presence in this place. Ultimately, when we experience and then come out on the other end of those painful hand-offs our God is the same. He is still faithful. He has still called us. We are still children of God. It can be our prayer that we would take the posture and heart of Paul in those times. That we would allow our faith in God to direct our steps and calm our hearts when we go through the painful hand-off.