What the Church might yet learn from Billy Graham

I must confess I struggle to know what the term Evangelical means anymore. I know that in the Greek, it originally meant good news or gospel. While I find that to be the most clarifying sense of the word, for over many years now it seems to have also taken on nuances of historical nostalgia, political influence, and attitudes similar to those who might pursue and preserve power. It’s a word whose many connotations I find difficult to fully comprehend. It has a lot of baggage with it that has burdened its original intention to convey God’s good news. For that reason, I rarely use it or readily identify with it.

This morning I woke up to the news that the Reverend Billy Graham had passed into God’s good presence. I know of Billy Graham the same as what everybody knows, that he was a preacher of Jesus Christ. While I wish I knew more about him, when it comes down to it, that is what he essentially was. A man who devoted his life to travelling from city to city, state to state, country to country preaching the good news about Jesus. In a culture that frequently esteems complexity and nuance, it’s amazing to think a man of such simplicity impacted the world so greatly.

In a sense, that simple essence helps remind and clarify what it might mean to be evangelical. A person whose life reveals God’s good news.

Reverend Graham’s passing comes at a time in our history where so much of the country is embroiled in a chaotic divisiveness of which the Church is very much a part. What role the Church goes on to play amidst this chaos will greatly depend on whose rule or kingdom we are seeking.

In Reverend Graham’s death and our looking back at the simple essence he was about, maybe the Church can be reminded that our essence is not about leveraging power to progress an agenda, but to be those whose lives really convey God’s good news.

My Dad once told me a story that when Richard Nixon received the presidential nomination at the Republican convention, he invited friend Billy Graham to a backroom with other friends and politicians where there would likely be smoking, drinking, cussing, political discourse. Ruth Graham, however, pulled Billy aside and said, “That’s no place for the man of God.”

Our place is to make much of Jesus and embody his way of living that conveys the uniqueness of God’s good news. It is a mission for which Reverend Graham labored long; now that his labors are over, his labors are now ours. As we take them up, let us be careful to leave the baggage behind. May we take up his labor of love in such a way that conveys news that is truly good.

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The good life Jesus presented | Matthew 4:23-25

Darkness is not its own element; it’s simply the lack of light, deceptively hiding what’s truly there.  Every morning the sun rises and casts a glow reminding a groggy world what is what.  The light warms what was cold.  The light reveals what is real.

Jesus has arrived and his ministry has begun.  By way of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy, Matthew has used the concepts of “darkness” and “shadow of death” to emphasize how the redemptive reality Jesus is bringing is breaking news of “great Light” illuminating the lives upon whom it has dawned.

“Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is good news because in it, like light in the dark, Jesus reveals what is real.  He proceeds to do so through both proclamation and demonstration.

Proclamation.  Going throughout the Galilee region he visits the synagogues, Judaism’s local centers of worship, teaching and proclaiming how the reign of God is shaping redemptive reality in their very midst.

Demonstration.  He also begins to corroborate his proclamations of the kingdom reality with healings of the sick and diseased around him.  The good news is not mere ideology, inspiration, or positive thinking.  It is the reality of Heaven tangibly enacted on Earth.  It is good news because it is God’s goodness encountered and experienced in actual life.

The good news Jesus proclaimed heralded the reality of the good life.  The healings Jesus performed demonstrated how the good life is real.

As the residents of these regions heard Jesus’ proclamations of the good news and witnessed Jesus’ demonstrations of the good life, this goodness of God elicited from them a response that revealed an eagerness for its reality.

“ The news about Him spread throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them.”

The last few weeks of winter are always the worst; it’s always cloudy and overcast, cold, gloomy, and grey.  But when the sun cuts through with early spring rays, a new energy comes.  A brightness that warms the soul.  Upon these Galilean residents, “a Light dawned.”  So refreshing was its reality, they now have a reason to arise from “sitting in darkness” to follow “Him from Galilee and the Ten Cities and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.”

When God framed the world and filled it, the one word Genesis’ author repeatedly uses to describe it all is good“God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.”  The framework and filling of all life radiated God’s goodness.  All was right with the world because all was good.  But when the world was soon plunged into sinfulness by humanity’s self-sovereignty that sense of goodness grew unfamiliar and foreign.

The proclamations and demonstrations of Jesus are only the beginning of bringing God’s goodness back home.  His kingdom reality gives us reason to rejoice and faith to follow.  As the eyes of our heart adjust to the light ignited by the good news, we will begin to see how we can participate in the good life rooted in the reality of God’s reign.  The world is eager for good news and aching for good life, but is skeptical that either exists.  It is partly through us that God’s goodness will be demonstrated.  How we participate in Christ’s kingdom reality helps reveal the actuality of God’s redemption amidst the world.

Here’s a closing question I’m also asking myself: How does your life reveal the actuality of God’s goodness?

The good news Jesus preached | Matthew 4:12-17

In his zeal for God’s honor, John had publicly spoken against Herod Antipas’ adultery and was subsequently imprisoned.  His ministry was basically over, creating a vacuum Jesus would step into.  Upon hearing the news, Jesus left the small town of Nazareth and settled in the fishing village of Capernaum.  Matthew describes its location as by the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.  Matthew is carefully specific because this pivotal moment comes right out of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy.

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a Light dawned.”

It’s a beautiful and climactic picture of God’s grace breaking into and through the desolate gloom.  Exhausted by the burden of performing rules, oppressed by injustice, downcast by disappointment, and shredded by sin, a ravenous darkness is how the people’s reality is depicted.  They walked in it, they lived in its haunted halls, they sat sapped in the heaviness of its shadow, drenched by its despondency.  There was nothing to look forward to.  But as Jesus arrived, “upon them a Light dawned.”

“From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

When this message was preached by the herald, it was a preview; now proclaimed by its King, its reality.  A reality bursting with good news.  It is not necessarily good news in terms of something neat that happened today or a viral story that will restore your faith in humanity, but good news that flows to the very root of human reality.  The Kingdom of Heaven is that good news.

The Kingdom of Heaven is the reality of God’s sovereign and redemptive reign transplanted into the midst of everyday human reality in the person of Jesus the Messiah.  It is good news because it reveals the redemptive reordering of reality to begin in light of God’s reign.  Set from Heaven into Earth, this kingdom-reality will change everything—how Jesus is to be known, how the community of the King bears witness to the reality of his reign, how kingdom-ethics are righteously lived out, how history is redemptively understood, how kingdom-economics are redemptively managed, how kingdom-justice is redemptively perceived and dispensed, how national identities are redefined in Christ, what it means to be a part of redeemed humanity.  The Kingdom of Heaven will mold everything it touches and it will touch everything.

All of us hope for something good to come along, to bathe us in its rejuvenation.  To reveal what is real and worth our while in life.  We wonder if it will ever come, if we’ll ever get to be a part of it.  This text unveils the arrival of the good life, the reality saturated with God’s goodness.  By entering this text through reading and assimilating its truth through prayer, reality from out of God’s throne room is formed in us, enabling us to perceive all of life redemptively through Christ’s eyes.   It invites us in to participate as residents of its alien realm.  God is up to something good, and that goodness is rooted and revealed in “the kingdom of heaven…at hand.”