Who is “the next Billy Graham?”
His death occurred 12 days ago; Billy Graham’s funeral was last Friday. The news leads and headlines – prominent for the last two weeks – will now recede and disappear, until year-end, when summations of 2018 include the deaths of prominent people.
His burial place – the library/museum bearing his name in Charlotte, North Carolina – will see a spike that will last all year as Christians come to pay their respects to the man against whom they measured their pastor for the last two generations. They will walk through the exhibits that tell the story of his emergence from a dairy farm in Charlotte to become the spiritual advisor to presidents; the man dubbed “the Protestant Pope;” Billy Graham was spokesman who gave credibility to the evangelical movement.
There is no banner at the Billy Graham Library posing the question, but the mystery hangs in the air like skywriting over a spring-break beach: who is “the next Billy Graham?”
It’s only human: the grief over the loss of beloved people – prominent for some benevolent role they played in a historic time – generates a sense of longing for the person who will assume their place. It gives the sense that the order and security felt while that person was alive can be regained and retained. Mantles are worn by few; they are symbolic – not literal – and they are earned through humility and sacrifice, not by campaign and succession. They are displayed in remembrance, not purchased on-line and self-bestowed.
Three thousand years ago, the Jewish nation was in the midst of a significant shift in their governance model. For four centuries, God had been designated as Israel’s king, ruling them from his palace in Heaven and administering his reign through a succession of divinely-appointed judges. The power of nationalistic peer-pressure became great: the popular uprising was calling for a human king like the countries surrounding them.
Convention replaced conviction: find a candidate who would win the popular vote. “Kings” are bigger-than-life; the selection of Saul sounds like a 21st Century audition: “…a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people…” (1 Samuel 9:2).
Saul captured their hearts, occupied the new throne, and reigned for over 40 years. He was grooming his firstborn – Jonathan – to be his successor, but Saul defied a direct order from Heaven (God had not removed himself from the role of ultimate Sovereign) and lost his mantle. God set his own succession plan in play…
Who would be “the next Saul?” Not Jonathan; God chose a teenaged shepherd to begin the march toward monarchy. David would not be “the next Saul;” he would be his own man.
David’s rise to power – and, his four decade reign – was a period when God did great things for his people. David was not perfect, but he was the iconic leader that Israel would remember forever. His death was not celebrated as a welcome regime-change; who was “the next David?”
God promised that there would be another heroic leader for the Jews; the anticipation over his ultimate emergence kept hope alive in the darkest days of Israel’s history. The Messiah was their salve for the wounds of oppression; there was a constant watch underway to spot the man who would arise and sit on the throne of his father David.
Lots of self-nominated candidates for Messiah came and went; only one came, went… and came back from death to claim the title. The question was always, “Who is the ‘next David?’” God’s answer: that’s what you’re looking for… but there is no “David II;” instead, there is “Jesus, the-Last.”
Each of us is first-and-last in history; one’s role can be assumed, but one’s identity can never be replicated. The normal approach: try to be someone else. The divine directive: be who God made you to be…