I’m writing this in February just after Billy Graham’s death. And I’m flying to Charlotte later this week to attend Mr. Graham’s memorial service.
It’s also the Easter season (when you read this). That’s appropriate.
Mr. Graham is now in heaven because another man died, came back from the dead, and said we could too. Because of the resurrection and that promise, Mr. Graham’s passing adds a great attraction to heaven.
I love Easter for a lot of reasons. One of them is that, for the most part, pagans haven’t co-opted Easter to sell trinkets. (I don’t have anything against the selling of trinkets, by the way, and understand that we all have to make a living.) I suspect the reason they don’t mess with Easter is because, if you talk about resurrection, you have to first talk about death. That’s a downer and not one of the unbelievers’ favorite subjects. But in Jesus’ case, you have to talk about the cross and that’s certainly not the topic of cocktail parties. It’s a lot easier to talk about a baby in a manger than it is to talk about a cross, blood and sacrifice. So they leave us alone. And that is a gift.
We can remember, rejoice, celebrate and party!
You’ve probably read a lot about Mr. Graham’s passing. So much has been said and written about his being “America’s pastor,” how he preached to more people than anybody in history, how he was a counselor to presidents, his record of integrity, and the impact his life made on people all over the world. (I’m one of them.) All of that is true. Mr. Graham was a great man.
But since we’re talking about Mr. Graham (and Easter), let me do something that others probably won’t do. Others will tell you about Mr. Graham’s greatness; I want to say something about his smallness. Others will tell you about his importance; I want to say something about his unimportance. Others will tell you about his faithfulness; I want to say something about his sin. In some cultures, funeral services include an assigned “speaker for the dead.” That person says what the deceased would say if he or she could attend the funeral. Mr. Graham would appreciate this. In that sense, I’m a speaker for the dead. (I’ll repent of my presumption later. “Sin now, repent later!”)
If Mr. Graham could speak at his own funeral I’m quite sure he would blush and say, “Stop it!” The first encounter I had with Mr. Graham was when he called me. I was a young pastor in Miami and headed out the door when the phone rang. I picked up the phone and the voice on the other end said, “Hi, Steve. This is Billy Graham.” I have a Baptist pastor friend whose impersonation of Mr. Graham is so good that he sounds more like Mr. Graham than Mr. Graham does. I thought it was my friend and almost said, “Yeah, and I’m Abraham Lincoln.” Fortunately, I didn’t. I said instead, “Really?”
Turned out it really was Mr. Graham. He was standing in a phone booth (if you don’t know what a phone booth is, ask your parents or grandparents) at the Miami airport. He didn’t want me to do anything. He had no agenda. He just had a minute and wanted to call and say hello. And the important thing is that Mr. Graham had no idea just how incredible and surprising that was.
I was with Mr. Graham after a crusade once as a committee member. Several of us were meeting and talking about the crusade where God had touched thousands of people in profound ways. But Mr. Graham was down and a bit depressed. To everyone’s shock, I said to him, “Are you a fruitcake? Didn’t you see all those people? Didn’t you sense God’s power through you? What do you want…egg in your beer?” To everyone’s relief (mine included), Mr. Graham started laughing and said, “You’re right.” I was blown away that this great evangelist was so humble to be surprised that God had used him.
Believe it or not, Mr. Graham was a sinner too…and said so often. When Mr. Graham’s mother was dying, the family gathered around her deathbed as Mrs. Graham slipped in and out of a coma. (The late T. W. Wilson was there and told me this story.) When she was conscious, the family read Scripture and sang hymns. On one occasion, Mrs. Graham came out of the coma with a horrified look on her face, and then slipped back into the coma. Mr. Graham was depressed for days…because he thought that his mother had gone before God and God had told her about her son’s sins.
Let me do something that others probably won’t do. Others will tell you about Mr. Graham’s greatness; I want to say something about his smallness.
I could tell you story after story of Mr. Graham’s ministry to those who had fallen…the times he visited prisons, the calls he made, and the prayers he prayed. He didn’t do that as a “saint” lowering himself to touch dirty people. He did it as one sinner to another, a sinner who had a great Savior…and knew it.
There are a lot more stories, but I’m running out of space. Bottom line, if Mr. Graham had a speaker for the dead at his memorial service who spoke truth, he or she would say that God had honored this man of God in astonishing and wonderful ways, affirm the legacy, offer praise for what God had done, and rejoice with everyone that the Grahams were reunited. But then the speaker for the dead would add on Mr. Graham’s behalf, “Please don’t misunderstand. Billy was a great sinner with a great Savior.”
(Can you imagine the conversations of Mr. Graham, Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea as they remember together the “war stories”?)
James 4:10 teaches, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Look that up in a commentary and you’ll find Mr. Graham’s picture there. If not, it should be.
What does this have to do with Easter?
A lot. Because of Calvary and the empty tomb, Mr. Graham is in heaven. Jesus promised and he always delivers on his promises. He’s done that with Mr. Graham and he will with you too.
Just don’t get confused by why heaven is the Easter promise for every Christian. It has nothing to do with how good you’ve been, the legacy you leave, how faithfully you have served Christ, or how many good works you can bring to the judgment throne. The truth is that if there were a gigantic scale in heaven on which our good works were placed on one side and our failure, sin and shame piled on the other side, the scales would dip down on the wrong side…and not just a little bit. The scales on the bad side would hit the ground with a tremendous thud.
Then a nail would fall on the good side…the scales would begin to slowly shift…then another nail would fall and another. All blood-stained.
Mr. Graham is in heaven now. Maybe when he got there, his sins (the ones he feared his mother had heard about) were read off. Just when he was about to be condemned, Jesus came up and said to a holy God, “Father, it’s okay. I paid for it all on the cross.”
Then God laughed and said, “Billy, welcome Home!”
That same God told me to remind you.
He is risen!
Join Dr. William Martin on Steve Brown, Etc. for a look at the man behind the pulpit as told in A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story.