It’s the end of an era. We all knew it was coming. Billy Graham has finished his race and is now at Home in Heaven with the Savior he has preached about for all these decades. There are all kinds of retrospectives and news segments rehearsing the details of his life, so I’m not going to do that here. Let me just give you some random thoughts I have as I think about Dr. Graham’s passing.
I first became aware of Billy Graham through my grandparents. Whenever a Billy Graham Crusade would be broadcast on television, it was always on in my grandparents’ home. My earliest memories of him are in black and white, because that’s the only kind of television anybody in our family had until the mid-1960s.
My grandfather came to faith in Christ when he was fifty years old, and it radically changed the direction of our family. The truths of the Gospel became precious to my grandparents, and they loved it when anybody would boldly proclaim those truths. They loved to hear our pastor preach the Bible, but they loved to listen to Billy, too. Ironically, our pastor didn’t support Dr. Graham or his crusades when he came to Indianapolis. But my grandparents didn’t care. When Billy was in town, they would always attend a night or two of his Crusade.
Dr. Graham has had an avalanche of criticism over the years, and an awful lot of it was “friendly fire”, i.e. from other pastors and Christians. But he was unfailingly kind to his critics and held unswervingly to his calling of preaching the Gospel. I think he was a lot like Jesus in that regard.
After I came back from the “far country” in my late teens, I too was reawakened to the precious truths of the Gospel. I remember recording one of Billy Graham’s sermons on a cassette recorder, holding it up to the speaker of a little black and white television for the whole twenty minutes or so that Dr. Graham preached. The recording was terrible. Along with Dr. Graham’s voice I got a loud electrical hum caused by recorder being too close to the television picture tube. But I didn’t care. I kept that blue cassette for years. The sermon was called “Peace with God”, and I still remember Dr. Graham quoting John 14:27 from the King James Version: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” That verse has stuck in my heart ever since. It is one verse I have never had to memorize. I can still hear Dr. Graham’s voice in my head when I read that verse, and I have quoted it often to other people.
Billy Graham came to Indianapolis is 1999 for his third and last crusade in our state’s capital. Our church chartered a bus up to go up to Indianapolis for one night of the crusade. We were among the 200,000+ people who crowded into the RCA Dome for the four nights of the meeting.
As a preacher, I was curious to see and hear what Dr. Graham did during the invitation time at the close of the service. I thought surely he must say and do more than they showed on TV.
I was surprised to see that there were no chairs on the floor of the arena. The entire crowd was in the stadium seats surrounding the floor. I assumed the venue had a rule against putting chairs on the floor where they played basketball and hockey. I was wrong.
As Dr. Graham came to the close of his message, I suddenly realized he had segued seamlessly into the invitation time, and I hadn’t even noticed. He simply invited those who wanted to receive Christ to leave their seats and make their way down to the main floor to come stand in front of the platform. Then he stepped back, bowed his head, closed his eyes and silently prayed. He stayed like that for several minutes. The only other words he spoke was when he stepped back to the microphone and asked if everyone would take a step or two forward to make room for those still coming.
Because they didn’t leave chairs off the main floor because there was a rule against it. They left the main floor open so there would be room for all the people coming forward. And the people coming completely filled the floor of the arena.
People say, “Many of those going forward are counselors.” That’s right. But even if half of them were counselors, that’s still an amazing multitude of people who came forward to receive Christ at Dr. Graham’s invitation. And he didn’t coax, cajole, beg or plead. He just stood there and silently prayed, and they came. It was one of the most amazing, incredible things I have ever seen. I stood there and wept as I watched. I have choked up now as I write this and remember it. I knew I was seeing a genuine work of God. There was no imitating it or copying his techniques. There were no techniques. Dr. Graham simply proclaimed the Gospel, invited people forward, and prayed. And they came. By the thousands they came.
In an interview once Dr. Graham said he could preach for twenty minutes or so and feel fine at the end of his sermon. But at the end of the ten or fifteen minutes of the invitation, when all he did was stand there and silently pray, he said he felt absolutely drained physically. He believed God had given him the gift, not so much of preaching, but of extending the invitation for people to receive Christ.
After what I saw, I believe he was right.
In another interview on television a few years ago, someone asked Dr. Graham if he was afraid to die. I’ll never forget his response. He said, “No, I’m looking forward to it. I want to see the face of God.” My wife and I sat there and wept.
Dr. Graham has seen the face of God now. There was a great cartoon by Gary Varvel in the Indianapolis Star after Dr. Graham’s death. It showed Dr. Graham, Bible in hand, standing before St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. There was a great crowd of smiling people waiting on the other side of the gates, and Peter said, “Billy Graham! Millions of people here want to thank you!”
I want to thank him, too. For all the years of faithfully proclaiming the Gospel, despite ridicule from the world and hurtful criticism from those who should have been his friends. For all the years he faithfully held up the light of Jesus Christ without one hint of personal scandal. For the way he finished his course with a deep, radiant faith in the Jesus he’d never seen. Thank you, Dr. Graham!
And thank God for the truly amazing way that He used a North Carolina farm boy to make His message known. May God help us to make Jesus known according to our gifts, and to be as faithful to Him as Dr. Graham was.
Soli Deo Gloria!