Friday night in the ancient, mountainous city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, thousands of people from all across Asia made their way to the 700-Year Stadium on the outskirts of town.
They flew in from Laos, Japan and beyond.
They came by car, van and moped from every corner of Chiang Mai.
And, in the case of some of Thailand’s most remote villages, the people came by pickup truck, crammed together in the back of beat-up truck beds carrying them hundreds of winding, bumpy miles to Chiang Mai.
It was the first night of the Abundant Life Festival with Franklin Graham, and there was an eager expectancy in the air as the sun disappeared behind the mountains and the music began.
For months, churches in northern Thailand have been working together with unprecedented unity to plan an evangelistic outreach to their region. Friday, they were excited to watch God move.
Noja, a middle-aged woman from a Karen hill tribe village, was one of hundreds of Thai people who arrived via pickup truck. Because gas is so expensive in Thailand, Noja shared the cost with nine others who traveled four hours to reach the Festival.
“We just came because we believe in Jesus, and we had a heart to come,” Noja said. “We wanted to listen to the Gospel, and we also called some friends in the village who do not believe in Jesus, because we want them to see what Christians are doing.”
Speaking in the traditional Karen language, Noja explained that more than half of the 200 families in her village believe in Jesus. The rest follow other religions including Buddhism, and some worship the spirits of dead relatives.
Noja has been a Christian for 10 years, and she vividly remembers what her life was like before she encountered Jesus.
“Before, I was afraid of ghosts and bad spirits, but after, you don’t need to be afraid anymore,” she said. “I have a peace inside.”
Hoping to share that peace with her friends, Noja invited them to the Festival to hear the Gospel, praying they would respond.
The night featured musical artists from all over Asia and the United States.
A chorus of local voices sang “How Great Thou Art” in Thai.
Popular Asian artists 3rd Wave and Rose Sirintip Hanpradit sang worship songs, along with Dennis Agajanian and the Tommy Coomes Band.
A traditional Thai dance group, adorned in sparkling gold costumes, awed the crowd with a dramatic performance, as a woman read from Psalm 42: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” (ESV)
When Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, stepped up to the podium with his Thai translator, Rev. Manoonsak Kamolmatayakul, the crowd of more than 17,000 listened attentively.
“If you don’t remember anything else tonight, remember this: God loves you,” Franklin Graham said. “And I’m talking about the God of the universe.”
Preaching from Luke 19:1-10, he told the people the story of Zacchaeus, the corrupt tax collector who climbed up a tree to get a better view of Jesus as he passed through the town of Jericho.
Even though Zacchaeus was hated by his own people and known for greedily pocketing money that wasn’t his, Jesus reached out to him. And even though the two had never met before, Jesus called Zacchaeus by name.
“Jesus stopped for Zacchaeus,” Franklin Graham said. “Jesus will stop for you, too.”
Speaking in a country where most of the people don’t believe in a God who loves them and wants to forgive them, Franklin Graham explained what makes Christianity different than every other religion.
“You say, ‘Franklin, why Jesus?’ Because Jesus is the only one to take your sins,” he said. “God sent Him on a rescue mission for you. The Bible says the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin, and tonight you can have peace with God.”
He told the people that Jesus is alive today, waiting to offer a fresh start to anyone who will repent and believe.
“He had never met Zacchaeus, but He knew his name. He knows your name,” Franklin Graham said. “Jesus was passing through Jericho. Tonight, He is passing through this stadium.”
The truth of those words was evident a few seconds after Franklin Graham gave an invitation to accept Christ. Suddenly, hundreds of people were streaming down the aisles of the stadium, filling the entire section in front of the stage.
Altogether, more than a thousand people responded to the invitation. Nearly half of the responses came from youth between the ages of 10 and 18.
Among the throng of people to walk forward and commit their lives to Jesus were four Karen villagers who came to the Festival with Noja.
In a demonstration of love and solidarity, nearly all of the 40 villagers in the group stood up front with the new believers. Then they walked with them to an area where Christian counselors were waiting to talk in their native language and give them materials to help them in their walk with God.
“I’m most happy,” Noja said, her eyes sparkling as she settled into the back of the pickup truck to make the long trip home. “Tonight, we saw people go out, and they gave their lives to Jesus.”
As the Festival continues Saturday and Sunday, Thai believers are praying thousands more will respond to the open invitation to follow Christ.
Friday night, people from all walks of life were introduced to the God who loves and forgives them.
Regardless of whether they came from the bustling city of Chiang Mai or a hill tribe village deep in the mountains, they’ll wake up tomorrow with the joyful realization that God knows each and every one of them by name.