When I was about 12 years old, one of my girlfriends invited me to go with her family to a Billy Graham Crusade. I remember that it was held in Soldier Field in Chicago. I have no idea what Reverend Graham said, but I do remember how the event ended. Graham’s Crusades always end with an altar call.
After preaching, Graham asked his listeners to respond to his message by committing themselves publicly to Jesus. Thousands of people, it seemed to me, headed to the field to speak with the counselors, who were prepared to receive their commitment and offer them information to help them follow up on their commitment.
When the family I was with responded by turning to leave the stadium, I was puzzled. Didn’t they pay attention to what they were being asked to do? Why were they leaving without making a commitment? Years later, I can make sense of it. Billy Graham Crusades are directed toward new believers, and to those who need to repent and make a new start with God. So, some people attended hoping to find faith, meaning, or at least hope.
I did some research and discovered that Graham’s Crusades in the 1950s and 1960s also emphasized a religious America in contrast to what Graham and many others called “godless communism.” So, perhaps many attended just to prove that America was a “Christian nation.”
Many, including the family I went with, already belonged to a church, and saw no need to make a new commitment. They merely went to see and hear the famous preacher in person.
… The folks who went to hear John the Baptist went for many reasons, too. Some went out of curiosity. Many had heard about John’s message and went to respond to his call to repentance. Many went to see the show, because he was a fiery speaker, and they never knew what he was going to say and do next. Some – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – went to keep a close eye on him, because what he was saying and doing infringed on their territory. It’s interesting that for once these two opposing religious groups agreed on something – the need to keep a close eye on John the Baptist.
John’s in-your-face style called the people to repentance, using a variety of images.
• Make straight the crooked road;
• You are snake offspring – this was a serious insult in that time and place;
• Don’t boast about your famous ancestors;
• Bear good fruit, because if you don’t, the ax is ready to cut you down;
• The Messiah is coming and he will separate you into chaff and wheat kernel, and you know that chaff gets thrown into the fire.
How do you respond to John’s language? For me, it depends on who I am in the crowd. If I’m the poor local baker or shepherd, I hear good news. I can get washed of my past and recommit myself to God. Even better, I can do it without a trip to the temple and the fees I’d have to pay.
If I’m just curious, gathered with the crowd, I’ll be one of those cheering when John yells at anyone but me.
If I’m a Sadducee or a Pharisee, I’m insulted that my work to preserve the faith of Israel is being attacked.
If I’m hoping for a Messiah like King David, I’m excited because soon, we’ll be rid of Herod, that pretender to the throne, and he’ll defeat the Romans as well.
… Do you also hear a challenge to inspect the kernel and chaff in your own life? Where is the kernel in your life? In what ways do you put God first in your life? How are you a good neighbor? How do you bear good fruit?
Where is the chaff in your life? Which commandment do you find yourself breaking the most? How do you not put God first in your life? In what ways are you not a good neighbor? How could you bear more fruit?
John the Baptist is not just interested in us showing up to hear him preach and yell insults. He wants to see the result of our faith in fruitful living. Billy Graham echoes the need to frequently recommit ourselves to a life of faith. Jesus calls us through our baptism to make a commitment to faithful living.
It’s not enough to make a commitment once. What might that mean for you this year?
Do you need to commit yourself to more time for prayer, or to more heartfelt prayer?
Do you need to commit yourself to more time for Bible study?
Do you need to commit yourself to more time for service in Jesus’ name?
Do you need to commit yourself to reaching deeper into your pocket?
Do you need to commit yourself to being more ready to forgive?
Do you need to commit yourself to using different God-given gifts?
Whatever commitment you feel called to make, ask God to help you make and keep it.
Please pray with me: Merciful God, we come to you today knowing we don’t give our whole being to you. Help us to increase the kernel and get rid of the chaff in our lives. Help us make a deeper commitment to following you every day. Amen