PASADENA, Calif. (BP)–Helped by his son Franklin, the aging evangelist Billy Graham made his way to the pulpit on a rare chilly Sunday afternoon in Pasadena Nov. 21. The 87-year-old Graham had made this trip thousands of times over the past 65 years of ministry, but nearly everyone in the stadium realized it would be one of his last. After glancing down at his notes one last time, he looked up and smiled reassuringly at a myriad of more than 82,000 people at the Rose Bowl.
“People have said this could be the last sermon I will ever preach,” Graham told the largest non-sporting event crowd in the stadium’s history. “And it may be. But I don’t know. That’s all in God’s hands.”
He then jokingly reminded the audience that his long-time friend George Beverly Shea — who had just sung “Softly and Tenderly” — was nearly 10 years older than he.
“And it is certainly not the last time he is going to sing!” Graham said to an audience that was both laughing and clapping by that point.
Some 12,000 people made decisions for Christ during the four-day crusade. The crusade had been originally scheduled for July but was postponed after doctors decided he needed more time to heal from a fall he suffered in May.
Graham is scheduled to preach at a crusade in New York City in June 2005.
Like a grandfather who knew he had limited opportunities to guide future generations, Graham turned his attention to the Gospel message. Using illustrations few in the world could use — including conversations with former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan — Graham encouraged those attending to prepare for Christ’s coming by accepting Him into their life.
“Many of you have Christian parents and were raised in a Christian home, but you have this other pull toward the sins of this world,” Graham said. “But are you really happy? Something is missing in your life.”
The Gospel is the only remedy for that emptiness, Graham said.
“Jesus gave His life, all His scourging, all the nails that went into His hands and feet, they were for you,” he said. “Jesus shed His blood for you and me.”
Halfway through the 45-minute sermon Graham sat down in the pulpit that had been custom-made for him.
“Now I could preach for another hour,” he jokingly told the cheering audience.
Whether or not Graham was preaching his last sermon ever, it was, in all likelihood, his last sermon in California. Many of Graham’s most memorable crusades have taken place in the state during the past half century.
“It was great to be a part of this,” said John Ernest, a member of First Baptist Church of Temple City, Calif., who sang in the choir and served as a counselor. “I grew up knowing about Billy Graham. I had attended a couple of other crusades, but this was the first time that I was able to serve at one.”
Michael Reagan, son of the late President Ronald Regan, helped to introduce Graham with a powerful testimony about his own salvation. During the testimony, Reagan opened up about how knowing Christ had helped him overcome problems as a child and a sometimes distant relationship with his parents.
“As you listen tonight, think of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ standing at the doorway of your life with His arms open wide wanting to give you a hug,” Reagan said. “He can rid you of the pain you feel toward someone else, maybe even yourself. He wants to embrace you.”
The crusade wasn’t without disruption. Graham was interrupted temporarily by a protester during his Friday evening message. He seemed undaunted.
“That exact thing happened to us in 1950 here, in the Rose Bowl, and God was at work,” Graham said.
Another protester was apprehended after jumping onto the stage during the invitation time, when counselors were meeting with people who were making decisions.
The Saturday service focused mostly on the youth. During the message, Graham recalled the Jesus Movement that began in the late 1960s. Graham said he ponders the potential positive effects of the same sort of movement among youth today.
“We could start another culture with Jesus at the center, obeying His commandments,” he said, followed by a roaring applause of agreement from the crowd.
In addition to the 12,000 who made commitments to Christ, another long-lasting benefit for Southern California churches will be the 5,000 people trained to share their faith through the Christian Life and Witness Course, which all counselors must attend. Throughout the crusade many of those counselors had the opportunity to share their faith two, three or more times with those who came forward. Sometimes it was the first time the counselor had shared his or her faith publicly.
“The Holy Spirit had been convicting me for awhile, especially after going through The Purpose Driven Life, that we are supposed to evangelize, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to do it,” said Karen Taylor, a member of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. “So when they announced at Saddleback that they were going to give a class on how to evangelize, I signed up. I came just to learn, but then I found out we were getting some practical experience at the Billy Graham Crusade. I thought that would be great practice for me!”
Katherine Go, a member of First Chinese Baptist Church of Los Angeles, was a counselor Saturday night, and she noted that although she was at first intimidated by the responsibility, she was challenged by Acts 1:8 to be God’s witness “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
“I think that was a challenge the Lord put in my heart,” she said, noting the opportunity she had to lead a young girl to Christ Saturday night. “He wanted to stretch me.”
The 12,500 decisions made during the crusade ranks as one of Graham’s highest totals over the past few years. According to the Associated Press, event organizers had been concerned that the linguistic diversity of Los Angeles would make it difficult to mobilize worshippers. After the crusade, they said they were pleased by the outcome.
“The miracle worker, Jesus Christ, was here … You and I are now alive forever,” Lloyd Ogilvie, the former U.S. Senate Chaplain and pastor emeritus of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, ended the crusade by telling the thousands who had come forward to accept Christ on Sunday.
“Heaven begins now!”