Sermon 12-01-13: “Reel Christmas, Part 1: It’s a Wonderful Life”

December 7, 2013


George Bailey is a man who sacrifices his own dreams for the sake of others. Joseph, the adoptive father of God’s Son Jesus, would be able to relate. As both Joseph and George learn, God’s dream for our lives is bigger and better than any dream we have for ourselves. To appreciate this, however, we have to receive the greatest gift any of us can receive this Christmas, or any other time: forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

Sermon Text: Matthew 1:18-25

The following is the complete sermon with videos:

The following is my original sermon manuscript along with the video clips we showed in the service. We began the sermon with this first 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 we know that God hears their prayers—because an angel named Clarence is assigned to the case.

If you’ve seen the movie already, then you know how it unfolds. If so, keep this in mind: what happens to George at the end of the movie is the result of people praying for him. This movie tells us at the very beginning that prayer changes things. God does things in response to prayer that he otherwise wouldn’t do. Jesus himself makes this point time and again in the Gospels. He tells a story, for instance, about a widow who goes before a judge day in and day out, demanding that the judge give her justice. Jesus says that this judge couldn’t care less about this widow, about God, or about doing the right thing, but guess what? He finally relents and gives her what she wants: because she’s persistent in asking.

Or how about in Acts chapter 12? King Herod Agrippa I has Peter arrested. It says in verse 5, “While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.” That very night, Peter was bound in chains between two soldiers, when an angel crept in and set him free and led him to safety. And then he goes back to his church where—oddly enough—the church is praying for him. We often emphasize the miracle of Peter’s escape. The text, however, places a greater emphasis on the prayer that led to the miracle. God could have set Peter free any number of ways. What’s most important is that God set his plan in motion because faithful people prayed—just as they do in this movie.

Lisa Wilkerson has spearheaded our church’s live nativity this week—this Thursday night. And we weren’t sure at first where we were going to get the animals, which, after all, make a live nativity alive. And every time I asked Lisa to give me a progress report, she emphasized that while she wasn’t quite sure where the animals were going to come from, she wasn’t worried because she was praying. James writes, “You do not have, because you do not ask.”

The people in It’s a Wonderful Life asked and God gave them what they asked for.

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: “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 that go far beyond the small town of Bedford Falls, and the Building and Loan that his father wants him to continue 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’s about to go. In this next 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 George’s 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 angel and the Holy Spirit. He believes 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. Except now, 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? Can we trust that the dream that the Lord has for us is better than any dream we have for ourselves?

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!”

When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he told him nearly the same thing: “What are you doing starving yourself out here? 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.”

Like George Bailey, Jesus Christ resists the temptation… all for the sake of common, ordinary yokels—common, ordinary sinners—like you and me. And while George sacrificed money and dreams for his people, Jesus, who is God, sacrificed his life on the cross for us. By doing so, God paid our debt, God suffered our penalty, God suffered our death, so that we wouldn’t have to—and we could have eternal life.

So, George rejects Potter’s offer—but continues to resent 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 said: “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 of God’s love or grace or mercy, but he’s 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—by sending an angel to his rescue.

God may still send angels to intervene in our lives, but notice that in It’s a Wonderful Life—as you’ll see in the next clip—the miracle isn’t simply that an angel from heaven intervenes to keep George from killing himself, but that the people who loved George came 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 I like what 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.

Have you ever thought that maybe you could be someones’s miracle? In this next clip, you’ll see the miracle I’m talking about…

You know what I love most about this happy ending? The joy and gratitude that George experiences happens before he finds out that he’s not financially ruined, and he’s not going to jail.

This tells us something important, something which we can so easily forget. See, before his encounter with the angel, what George thinks he needs—and what the viewer probably thinks George needs—is $8,000 cash. In a hurry. Money will solve his problems. But that’s not what George needs most. George’s deepest problem can’t be solved with money or anything else the world can offer. See, first and foremost, George has a spiritual problem. It’s not because he’s a bad guy. Good heavens, George Bailey is as decent and generous and loving as anyone—but even George needs spiritual healing. And one symptom of his spiritual ailment is the jealousy and resentment he feels toward his younger brother and friends and classmates who, unlike him, have left town and made a name for themselves.

We all need this kind of spiritual healing!

There’s a story in the Gospels of four friends who are trying get their paralyzed friend to Jesus, so that Jesus can touch the paralyzed man and heal him. But the house where Jesus is staying is crowded. So they dig a hole in the thatched roof and lower their friend down on a mat, in front of Jesus.

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Wait… Your sins are forgiven. “Who said anything about sins needing to be forgiven? What this man obviously needs is to be healed physically, to be able to get up and walk, to be able use his arms and legs again, so he can work and get on with life. Why is Jesus talking about forgiveness of sins?”

Because forgiveness of sins is the main reason Jesus came! That’s more important than anything else.

And that’s what we all need God to do for us before God does anything else for us: forgive our sins… heal us spiritually… Save us. If we can only find forgiveness and salvation from Godwell, we can face anything else life throws our way—the same way George can face financial ruin and jail time if he needs to

The secret to having a wonderful life—or “abundant life,” as Jesus says in John’s Gospel—is for us to receive the greatest gift any of us could possibly receive at Christmas, or any other time: forgiveness of sins, salvation, eternal life. God is freely offering it to us this morning. See, I don’t want any of us leaving church on Sunday morning not knowing—not being quite sure—where we stand with God. Not knowing for sure what happens to us after death. Have you been forgiven? Have you been saved? You can be.

If you are ready to be saved, I’m going to invite you to pray this prayer with me, silently in your heart while I pray it out loud…

Gracious God, I confess that I’m a sinner who needs forgiveness. I need to be saved from my sins. I need to be saved from eternal separation from you, which my sins deserve. I believe that your Son Jesus came into this world over 2,000 years ago—in the most humble way imaginable, born in a barn, laid in a feeding trough. He came to live, to suffer, to die, and to be raised to new life so that even a common, ordinary sinner like me can be saved and have eternal life. You did all this through your your Son because you love me that much. You love me with a love from which nothing in this world or outside of this world can ever separate me. So I’m asking you to forgive me, to give me the gift of eternal life, and fill me with your Spirit so I can make your Son Jesus the Lord of my life. Thank you, God, for doing that for me. And I pray this in the name of my Savior, Jesus. Amen.


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