Remembering Billy Graham

I remember from my youth that there were two outstanding preachers on television. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen had a weekly program in the 1950s called "Life is Worth Living." And in the 1960s right up to the dawn of the new century, Billy Graham would appear on television three or four times a year preaching to stadiums full of people in what he called “a crusade” for Christ. The two men could not have been more different. The one was a Catholic. The other was a Southern Baptist. The one had a PhD in philosophy having studied at the Sorbonne and taught at Oxford. The other was just a common man from North Carolina with a common public school education. One wore the purple vestments befitting a prince of the Church ordained in the apostolic succession. The other wore a modest suit and tie and was, as he said, simply answering the call God had given him.

        But for all the differences between these two men, they had one thing in common. In an age of liberalism which has dismissed the supernatural and miraculous elements of the Gospel as nothing but superstition and legend, these two men spoke with authority affirming with certainty beyond doubt the absolute truth of the word of God. In an age of agnostic unbelief, they believed. They believed the Bible, which tells us that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins. And their message to America, though delivered in very different ways, was essentially the same. It was the timeless message of the New Testament: that the same Jesus Christ who died in Jerusalem accursed on a cross for our sins will one day come again on the clouds in glory to judge the living and the dead. And on that day when he judges the world there will be a stiff penalty to be paid by all who have not believed in Him.

         But why him? Why is it so important that we believe in Jesus Christ? Why won’t faith in Moses or Buddha or Mohammed or any one from a myriad of old souls and gurus do? They won’t do, because not a one of them has the power to save us from our sins. Christ alone, having risen from the dead, can rescue us from the curse of death that God put upon Adam’s descendants because of Adam’s sin. For as the Bible says, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim.2.5). The world has known many religious leaders, prophets true and false, and our age is full of fortune tellers and spiritual guides. But Jesus Christ alone came to earth from heaven to sacrifice himself for our sins. By raising Jesus from the dead, after he faithfully suffered torture and crucifixion in accordance with the scriptures, God revealed that Jesus was more than a prophet or a wise and righteous man. He was the only begotten Son of God.

       This is a mystery hard to understand.  He who had the power to exorcize demons, heal the blind and raise the dead to life again willingly underwent torture and gruesome death by crucifixion; why? While he was dying on the cross, his merciless tormentors taunted him by saying, “He could save others, why doesn’t he now save himself? Come down from the cross and we’ll believe in you” they laughed. Why didn’t he come down from the cross? Was he powerless? No. He who created the universe by the power of his word was all powerful. But in his human nature the Son of God was entirely committed to one thing: obedience to God. That he was God’s son made it no easier for him to do what he did. Foreseeing all that he would be required to endure to redeem humankind from sin, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father let this cup pass from me, nevertheless not my will but thine be done.” Had he come down from the cross there would be no Gospel to proclaim, no sermon today to preach, because the scriptures would have gone unfulfilled. Had he not died on the cross, he would have failed to make atonement for our sins, and Satan, who defeated Adam in the beginning, would have won again. That is why, after he told his disciples that the Christ must suffer and die, Jesus was furious with Peter when his disciple said to him, “No way Lord, you must not do this.” Our Lord reprimanded him harshly, saying to him, “Get the behind me Satan, for you are not on the side of God but of men.” Christ became our savior by dying for us. And by taking all the sin of humanity upon himself—which he alone could do, being fully divine—he abolished those sins by putting them to death in himself. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he prayed as he took his last breath. What he prayed for us, he accomplished by his perfect faithfulness to God, faithful even unto death.  St. John, who alone among the chosen twelve stood faithfully at the foot of the cross with Mary, summed up the significance of this event in these immortal words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in him may not perish but will have eternal life.” ( John 3.16).

        In an age when preachers everywhere are wasting precious time advocating for marriage equality, gun control, black lives matter, and hundreds of other political causes adored by politically correct progressives, while men and women everywhere are losing their souls to sin, giving themselves over to unspeakable promiscuity, these men kept the focus of their preaching and teaching where it belongs: on the precious blood of Christ shed on the cross which alone has the power to save our souls.

      At the end of each sermon, Billy Graham would offer, as is the custom in the Southern Baptist church, an altar call. He would invite those in the congregation to come forward and receive Christ he would say, “as your personal Lord and Savior.” It was always impressive to see hundreds of people come forward in response to his preaching, many of them in tears and all of them wanting to repent of sin and begin a new life following the commandments of God. And as the people responded faithfully after hearing Billy Graham preach, the choir would sing the hymn "Just as I Am"—"Just as I am without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou biddest me come to thee, O lamb of God I come, I come."

       Some may wonder, why don’t we ever have an altar call? If we did, maybe we could get some of the sinners in this congregation converted. But if you think we don’t have an altar call, look again. What do we do at the end of each service after we have preached the word and lifted up Christ to God in the Blessed Sacrament consecrated on the altar? We pray to him who takes away our sin by taking it upon himself: O Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world have mercy upon us. And then the priest invites us to come forward and receive Christ who humbly comes to us disguised under the forms of bread and wine. We kneel at his altar rail and we humbly offer our souls to him as he imparts the divine sanctity to us forgiving our sins. That’s an altar call, my friends. Whether you’re worshipping in a Protestant church or Catholic, that’s what it’s all about, you give your soul to Jesus Christ who gave his life for you or 'you got nothin'.' But when you have Christ in you the hope of glory you have everything. For he who rose from the dead after having died on the cross as he said he would, will keep his promise and his word is sure: “all who see the Son and  believe in him will have eternal life,” he said, “ and I will raise you up on the last day.”

         Many will say that Protestants and Catholics are so different, they have nothing in common. But not really. All of us who are Christian believe that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As soon as I say that I know that there are many here today who wonder: Lamb of God? What is that? Well, the answer is in the Bible. Go back to the story of Abraham and Isaac. God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son. Abraham did not rebel but obeyed God. He led Isaac to a mountain to sacrifice him to kill him. Like Jesus would centuries later, Isaac carried the wood on which he was to be sacrificed up the mountain. And like Jesus would, Isaac obediently did what his father asked of him and laid on the wood. But as he lay on the wood he asked Abraham, “My Father, where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ And Abraham said “God will provide the lamb.” At that moment God provided a ram. Abraham took the ram and offered it to God, God then accepted the ram and spared Isaac.

       But unless Abraham was a liar, and not a righteous man, God had still to provide a lamb. The absence of that lamb is mystery hovering over the whole Old Testament. Abraham, whom God declared to be a righteous man, could not have been a liar. Therefore, there had to be a lamb yet to come. A greater sacrifice than Abraham would have made of Isaac was still to come. But what would it be; when and where? No one knew.  The answer would come two thousand years after the events related in Genesis 22.  Jesus appeared on the banks of the Jordan River and John the Baptist, prophetically moved by the Spirit, proclaimed upon seeing him, “Behold the lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus is that lamb. And what God would not let Abraham do, sacrifice his only son, God himself would do. God, the Father of us all made the ultimate sacrifice for us by offering his Son on a cross on our behalf. To be Christian is to believe that. To be saved is to know that Jesus Christ has fulfilled the scriptures he is the answer to the mystery that hovered over the Old Testament. He is the ultimate sacrifice, the one in whom the love of God for fallen humanity is perfectly revealed.

       And so Catholics and Protestants may have separate traditions that hopefully will be reconciled one day but we all have the same Savior and our singular hope is in him. Billy Graham preached consistently with conviction the message of that savior. That’s what made him effective just as it made Bishop Sheen effective. And those churches that will be effective in the future are the ones that deliver that message faithfully for God. The handwriting is on the wall. Churches that sell out to the liberal progressive culture and devote their resources exclusively to promoting what they call social justice are nothing but socialist wolves in disguise and at best a waste of everyone’s time. And there are so many of them now, Protestant and Catholic alike that America is starving for lack of authentic gospel preaching.

       Who is going to take Billy Graham’s place? They called him America’s pastor. Who is America’s pastor now? And what would he say to our previous President who at a national prayer breakfast called Jesus “a son of God”? And to our present one whose daughter left the faith to become a Jew? And what would he say to the American people who greet all of this with a yawn? We are a nation of sheep without a shepherd. I would not dare to predict the future. It remains to be seen whom God will raise up or if he will raise up anyone to take Rev. Graham’s place as America’s pastor. He may punish us and raise up no one. But that’s a sermon for another day. The message for this day is the one that Billy Graham hammered home time and time again; it’s the timeless message of the Gospel: believe in what the Bible says and believe in Jesus Christ. Accept him today as your personal Lord and Savior. For he is the sole mediator between God and humankind ; and his blood, shed on the cross, has the singular power to save us all from our sins.