On Easter Sunday 2001, I made a dramatic announcement to the congregation I was serving as pastor.
Two years earlier we had joined with other churches in supporting the Billy Graham Crusade in Indianapolis. I announced that I had received a phone call the prior evening from a member of the Graham Association, asking if it would be all right if Dr. and Mrs. Graham worshiped with us on Easter.
They and other members of their team were in central Indiana doing a follow-up study on their ministry. The invitation was timed in such a way that there would be no opportunity for overzealous church-wide publicity.
My announcement sent a jolt through the congregation.
I continued, “Beyond attending worship, what the Grahams would like to do this morning is to have an opportunity to be in dialogue with a number of us. Obviously it is Easter, and congestion is an issue. What we have chosen to do is to free up a few of our rooms, where we should be able to gather a significant number of adults. The Grahams will be available for at least 45 minutes after our final service.”
I continued, “Now, I know that a number of you already have made plans for the day, but clearly it would be enriching to spend even a moment with a man who’s made such a remarkable impact on the world. If you are able to join us, we will do everything we can to open the doors to anyone who is interested in being part of this special opportunity.”
The excitement in the sanctuary was palpable. We were going to meet someone of great significance.
I went on, “You know, I’ve been thinking about what I would say if I have the chance to shake Billy Graham’s hand this morning. I think I would say, ‘I am so sorry that on Easter, of all days, I used your good name as the centerpiece of a story designed to fool my congregation.’
“That’s right – I haven’t the faintest idea where Billy Graham is going to be today.”
Jaws dropped. I waited a few seconds.
Then I said, “But just for a moment, weren’t you incredibly excited? Weren’t you sitting here imagining yourself in the presence of a noteworthy person who really wanted to hear from you, and who had actually asked to spend some time with you? The good news is that there really is such a person. Because of Easter, we know that he is always available. His name is Jesus.”
There are downsides to such homiletical theatrics, of course. Several children said, “Mommy, why did Pastor McDonald tell a lie in church?” One young dad had ducked out of the sanctuary with his cell phone before I reached my punch line. He had quickly phoned his parents to arrange for childcare and then altered the family’s brunch reservations. He didn’t hear the whole story until after the benediction.
In a celebrity-driven culture, a visit from Billy Graham would indeed have been a big deal.
What’s amazing is that if the core message of the resurrection is actually true – if indeed Jesus is not dead, but alive – the most important figure in human history is always available to every one of us.
He invites us to open our eyes, alter our plans, and do whatever it takes to spend priceless moments with him any day we want.
Including this one.