As I write this, the news of Billy Graham’s death is just coming down the newswires. Described as the most influential religious figure of the last century, he preached to around 100 million people in person, and reached many more through radio, TV and later online. It’s fitting that he died aged 100, justifying a letter from the Queen who was deeply influenced by his authentic faith and direct preaching. Like all public figures, and Jesus himself, Graham had his critics. Liberals critiqued his message as “simplistic,” while fundamentalists saw him as compromised. Regardless, he left a lasting mark on the world for the sake of the Gospel. My life, too, was shaped by him to some extent, growing up with parents who led Youth for Christ NZ, which was part of the organisation Billy Graham founded as its first full-time employee. My earliest memories were at camps and youth events, seeing un-churched teenagers respond to Jesus at a time in their lives when he was supposed to be least relevant.

Although we think of Billy Graham as old-fashioned and belonging to another era with his outdoor “crusades,” Brylcreem hair, and clean-cut suits, he was actually a cultural innovator, finding new and creative ways of connecting with people from all walks of life, from royalty and heads of state to common people in every country on earth.

What made Billy Graham distinctive in an age when many other charismatic leaders fell away, was his humility and unwavering focus on the “good news” of Jesus. So, it’s fitting today that we remember the moment when Jesus first announced the coming of this kingdom that would be good news to those who needed it most. As we hear Luke’s description of Jesus reading the scroll from Isaiah, our first impression is often a sense of distance between him and us — Jesus is speaking in a faraway place, a long time ago, and declaring promises that can feel foreign to our own experience of life.

But Luke’s intention is that we would find ourselves within the Gospel story, exposed to its full drama and challenge. That we would hear Jesus’ words as words directly to us. And that we would come to know what it means for this kingdom to take shape within us and to be passed on through us.

For me, amidst his countless achievements, the real power of Billy Graham’s life and legacy is that he put himself in the story, he took Jesus’ words seriously, and he boldly passed them on to millions of people around the world. This Southern Baptist boy from Charlotte, North Carolina, showed that the kingdom Jesus announced all those years ago, is as real today as the day it first arrived. The Brylcreem may seem foreign, but Billy Graham’s humble heart and radical faith is an inspiring example for all of us.


Blessings,
Rev Jonny Grant