Sermon 12-02-12: “It’s a Wonderful Life”

December 6, 2012

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In this sermon, which integrates clips from the classic holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life, I talk about what it takes to have a wonderful or—as Jesus puts it in John 10:10—”abundant” life. This sermon is part of a series we’re doing during Advent called “A Very Merry Vinebranch Holiday Special.” Each week, my sermon will use clips from a Christmas TV special or movie. 

Sermon Text: John 10:7-10

The following is my original sermon manuscript with video clips included in the proper order. The sermon begins with the following clip:

All we know for sure at the beginning of the movie is that a man named George Bailey is in trouble—so much so that he’s contemplating suicide. People who love and care for him are praying for him. And God hears their prayers. Because an angel named Clarence is assigned to the case.

One minor theological quibble here: The film imagines that people who die and go to heaven become angels who must then “earn their wings” by doing some good thing for people on earth. I guess this is a Hollywood version of angels, but this isn’t what the Bible teaches. Biblically speaking, we don’t become angels when we die. Angels are a completely separate kind of creature that God made.

We can’t say much about angels, but we know that they’re real. Some of them are aligned with God and work on our behalf and on behalf of God’s kingdom. Other angels—like Satan—have turned against God and work against us and God’s kingdom. There is, as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians and elsewhere, spiritual warfare in our world and in our lives. The struggle that drives George Bailey to consider “throwing away God’s greatest gift” is against a far more powerful opponent than any one man, even a bad one named Henry Potter.

Many people were surprised or shocked by the recent downfall of General David Petraeus. How could someone like him, a good and strong and honorable and self-disciplined man like him—who has otherwise shown exceptionally good judgment—fall victim to sin in this spectacular way and make such a horrible error in judgment? No one questions General Petraeus’s strength and craftiness and courage in the face of a human enemy, but when it comes to battling this other kind of Enemy, he’s hopelessly outmatched. We all are. At least apart from God. The good news is that we don’t have to battle this Enemy on our own.

In fact, the good news that the movie proclaims in this very first scene is the same good news that the angel proclaimed to Joseph in Matthew chapter 1: “We are not alone. God is with us. The coming of Jesus Christ into the world at Christmas proves that God is with us.” George Bailey is going to have to learn that lesson later on, but we, the viewers, are let in on the secret at the very beginning. God is with us.

As we see in this next clip, George is a man who has dreams—dreams go far beyond the small town of Bedford Falls, and the Building and Loan that his father wants him to work at.

Mary, of course, wishes that George would marry her, and settle down here, and live in that house.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that George never made it to Europe. His father, Peter, has a stroke and dies just before he leaves. In this scene, George is about to leave for college after tying up loose ends at the Building and Loan. His father’s business rival, Mr. Potter, tries to persuade the board of directors to shut down the Building and Loan. Potter owns the only bank in town, and besides, he’s a slumlord. He has an interest in keeping the people poor and dependent on him.

So in an effort to do the right thing, George gives up on his dreams. He stays in town and runs the Building and Loan. He even gives the money he’d saved for college to his younger brother Harry. Can you imagine the disappointment?

I’ll bet Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, could imagine the disappointment. Think about it: Joseph’s fiancée, Mary, tells Joseph that she’s pregnant—and Joseph knows he’s not the father. He knows the facts of life; he knows that women don’t get pregnant without a human father. Never mind what Mary told him about the Holy Spirit. Mary cheated on him. Can you imagine the disappointment?

Joseph soon learns the truth, and he learns that God has a new and different plan for his life—to be the adoptive father to the Son of God. Like George Bailey, God’s new plan for Joseph would require suffering and sacrifice. Not long after Jesus was born, for example, an angel warns Joseph in a dream that Herod is out to kill his son, and he needs to escape to Egypt. So, in the middle of the night, in fear for his son’s safety, he uproots his family in Bethlehem and moves to a place that is not his home. Can you imagine the disappointment? Some time later, when Herod dies, the angel tells him to return to the land of Israel. Even then, however, because another dangerous Herod was on the throne, he can’t return to his hometown in the south; he has to settle in the north, in Nazareth. Can you imagine the disappointment?

The truth is that like Joseph and like George Bailey, taking up our cross and following Jesus often means changing our own plans and giving up on our own dreams. And it might not even be something we want to do, at least at first. Can we trust that the Lord knows what’s best for us?

In the Old Testament, God tells Jeremiah the prophet, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” This kind of foreknowledge doesn’t just apply to people who are called to be prophets, but to you and me. The psalmist declares that when he was in the womb “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” God has a plan for each one of us. And it’s good, if only we’ll trust him.

In this next scene, after years of trying to shut down the Building and Loan, Potter has a proposition for George.

Notice how reasonable Mr. Potter’s offer is. He would pay George $20,000 in 1947, which today would amount to over $200,000. And George could easily justify going to work for the enemy by imagining that if he were running Potter’s business, he could change it for the better. Besides, hadn’t he suffered enough? Hadn’t he sacrificed enough? Hadn’t he done enough good already? One of the recurring tensions in the film is that while George has helped other people achieve their dreams, he resents that he never achieved his.

So Potter appeals to George’s sense of entitlement: “Sure,” he says, “if you were one of these common, ordinary yokels, then you’d be doing O.K., but you’re the smartest man in town. You deserve more than this!”

“You’re not one of these common, ordinary yokels…” When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he told him nearly the same thing: “What are you doing starving yourself in the wilderness? Turn that stone to bread. You deserve it! What are you doing trying to help a bunch of common, ordinary yokels in the boondocks of Galilee. Come work for me and all the world’s rulers will fall at your feet! Think of all the good you can do! You deserve it! After all, you are the Son of God, not a common, ordinary yokel.

One of the most harmful things in life is believing that we deserve something—that we’re entitled to something, that we’re entitledto God’s blessings. If we feel entitled, we’ll never be satisfied or content. We’ll always compare ourselves with others and feel like we got the short end of the stick. We’ll always want more. And we won’t be grateful.

Well, George ends up rejecting Potter’s offer—but it deeply bothers George that he still has so little to show for his life’s work. In fact, on Christmas Eve, after his absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces a deposit that today would amount to over $80,000, George fears that he’s lost what little that he does have—and he even faces possible prison time, because he’s going to take the fall for Billy’s mistake. The police will think George embezzled the money. Potter even accuses him of gambling it away or spending it on women. After George considers the value of his life insurance policy, he decides that he’s worth more dead than alive.

In a rage, he leaves his family on Christmas Eve night and goes to a bar and prays a prayer. He later contemplates ending his life by jumping off a bridge into an icy river.

Jesus told the following parable: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee.”

George tells God, “I’m not a praying man.” Like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, he knows he isn’t worthy for God to do anything for him, but he’s desperate. Don’t we often do our best praying when we’re desperate? I love that George calls God “Father,” the way Jesus taught us. Parents, especially parents at Christmastime, know all too well that their children have no trouble asking for exactly what they want—and asking repeatedly. They have no shame. If only we acted more like God’s children and boldly asked God our Father, directly and simply and repeatedly, for what we wanted! Well, George does that, and God answers his prayer.

Not exactly in the way he expects God to answer it, however!

Remember in the gospels when Jesus miraculously feeds the 5,000 with a few loaves and fish that a young boy gives them? In his classic commentary on the text, William Barclay speculates that the loaves and fish don’t miraculously multiply as each person in the crowd takes some, but that the crowds had actually already had all the food they needed amongst themselves. When they saw the boy’s humble act of generosity, it inspired them to be generous and share what they had with others. The real miracle, Barclay said, was their newfound generosity.

I don’t share Barclay’s interpretation of the miracle, but I do believe that—in either case—a miracle would have occurred. In fact, isn’t this the way God usually intervenes in our lives to answer our prayers? Not by defying the laws of physics, like the parting of the Red Sea in some spectacular James Cameron-produced, CGI-like miracle, but by using ordinary events and ordinary people. In It’s a Wonderful Life, in fact, the miracle isn’t simply that an angel from heaven intervenes to keep George from killing himself, but that—independently of all that—George’s wife, Mary, gets on the phone and calls all the grateful townspeople whose lives George changed for the better and let them come through with the missing money.

Was it just a coincidence that George prayed, and Mary prayed, her family prayed, and the townspeople prayed, and in the end George had all the money he needed? Maybe. But as Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said many years ago, “When I pray, coincidences happen; when I stop praying, the coincidences stop happening.” Mary herself calls the town’s generosity a miracle, and, indeed it is! Miracles happen all the time because all the time, through all of life’s circumstances, God is with us, loving us, caring for us, always working for our good. In fact, sometimes God even wants you and me, like these townspeople in the movie, to be a miracle for someone else.  

You’ll see the miracle of the townspeople’s generosity in this last scene. But notice how the joy and gratitude that George experiences happens before he finds out that he isn’t financially ruined, and he isn’t going to prison. It’s as if he’s found a joy and a happiness and a peace that doesn’t depend on the external circumstances of his life, how successful he is, what people think of him, how much money he has, how he measures up to others, whatever hardship he’s facing. This is the secret, see… This is that thing that you can’t “get your fingers on,” as George tells Potter earlier. This is exactly the kind of wonderful life—or abundant life, as Jesus calls it—that comes to us as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ.

I hope in this season of Advent you’ll find that gift of life. It’s available to you from the God who loves you with a love from which neither life nor death, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us.

Receive that gift this season, and it will be the best Christmas gift ever!

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