Posts Tagged ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Sermon 11-05-17: “To Live Is Christ”

November 10, 2017

 

Just in time for Thanksgiving, today begins a 4-part sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians—a letter bursting with joy and gratitude. Paul’s tone should surprise us: After all, he’s writing this letter from prison, facing trial and execution for his faith. Moreover, his missionary work—his vocation to reach the Gentiles with the gospel—appears to be seriously hampered. How is Paul able to be so happy?

Sermon Text: Philippians 1:12-26

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

It’s November, which means—as far as I’m concerned—it’s almost Christmas. I love this time of year. This year, during the Thanksgiving/Advent/Christmas season I’m planning on re-watching one of the greatest movies ever made: I’m referring, of course, to It’s a Wonderful Life. Most of you have seen this holiday classic. It is so good; it’s so deep; it’s so rich.

You remember the basics of the story: George Bailey is an ambitious young man who has dreams of leaving Bedford Falls, the small town he grew up in; seeing the world; going to college; being a world-renown architect or engineer; building things. Accomplishing things. Being successful; being rich. Living the American dream. But through a series of unfortunate events and circumstances beyond his control, he ends up stuck in Bedford Falls, running his late father’s Building and Loan, watching his friends and even his little brother achieve the kind of success that he himself always wanted to achieve—as if being married to Donna Reed wasn’t enough for him! What was his problem?

Regardless, toward the end of the movie, his incompetent uncle loses $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s money, and the police suspect that George stole it, and pretty soon he’s going to be arrested. His life is in ruins, or so he thinks. So he contemplates suicide until an angel intervenes to save his life. The angel shows George one example after another of how much better his fellow townspeople’s lives are as a result of George’s life. George sees that every unlucky break, every setback, every disappointment, every perceived failure in his life played a role in blessing the lives of others. It was almost like someone was behind the scenes of George’s life, pulling strings, coordinating events, making things work out in a particular way. And although the movie doesn’t come right out and say it, we Christians can watch this movie and know that Someone was doing these things. While things weren’t going according to George’s plans, they were going  exactly according to Someone else’s plan. This is how God works in our world, for those of us who believe in his Son Jesus.

More than anything, this is what today’s scripture is all about.

I’ve called this new, four-part sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “Reasons to Be Thankful.” Philippians is all about gratitude and joy. Why am I offering this series? Because I want to prepare us for Thanksgiving, for one thing. I also want to prepare us for making a financial commitment on Stewardship Sunday, which Luther will tell you more about next week. More than anything, I want you and me to be as happy in the Lord as Paul himself is. And you may say, “I’m not Paul!” And that’s right. You’re not. His life was much more difficult, filled with much more suffering, much more pain, much more loss, than our lives are! And yet his life, as is clear from this letter, is characterized by great joy. That’s what I want in my life. Don’t you? Read the rest of this entry »

One more thought on Wonderful Life

June 24, 2017

Please see my previous post if you haven’t already.

In the last minute of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey seemingly gets the happy ending that he thought he deserved earlier in the film: grateful townspeople, former classmates, and even his younger brother express their gratitude and love to him in heartfelt, tangible ways.

But not so fast…

In the clip above, George’s salvation comes before that last minute—as evidenced by his elation at the prospect of going to jail. When the sheriff tells him he has a paper for him, George says, “I bet it’s a warrant for my arrest. Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!”

As far as George knows, something far worse than hating his job or “playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic eaters” has befallen him. Yet how does he respond? Wth pure joy. Like the younger son in the parable, George has passed from death to life.

The fact that his friends saved him from prison was good, but his true salvation happened before that.

It’s hard not to think of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:8:

I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.

“Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?”

June 24, 2017

A couple of years ago, the copyright gods removed a few video clips from my Vimeo account—my “fair use” defense notwithstanding. (Ask me what I think about the sad fact that no song, movie, book, or play falls into public domain anymore! 😡) Still, I’m happy to report that no one came after my clips from It’s a Wonderful Life (which itself became an evergreen classic only after it fell into the public domain, and UHF TV stations could show it for free on their late-night airwaves).

In tomorrow’s sermon, I’m preaching on the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (or, more accurately, the Parable of the Lost Sons). As I’ve been preparing for it, I’m reminded of this unforgettable scene between Mr. Potter and George Bailey: having been unable to beat Bailey, Potter decides to join him—or at least have Bailey join him. (Lionel Barrymore’s performance here makes me wish he had been able to play Scrooge, as originally planned, in an MGM adaptation of A Christmas Carol.)

George, the older son in the Bailey family, is also the older son in the parable—or close enough. (It’s not for nothing that earlier in the movie, when George hears that his brother has returned to Bedford Falls, he says, “Kill the fatted calf!”) All these years, he’s been “slaving away” (Luke 15:29) for his father, who, though now deceased, once asked young George to take over the family business. Like the older son, George resents the fact that others are celebrating his younger brother, whose good fortune—whose very life—was made possible by George’s sacrifices. (George, you’ll recall even saved his brother’s life, at great personal cost, when he was a boy.)

Like the older son, George resents that his years of hard work have amounted to so little; he hasn’t received the recognition to which he believes he’s entitled. Until Potter seduces him with this job offer, no one in George’s life even gave him the equivalent of a “young goat to celebrate with his friends”—or so he thinks.

Potter, as smart as the devil, correctly diagnoses George’s problem. 

Now, if this young man of 28 was a common, ordinary yokel, I’d say he was doing fine. But George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He is an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man, who hates his job, who hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. A young man who’s been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man—the smartest one of the crowd, mind you… A young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places because he’s trapped—yes, sir, trapped—into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic eaters.

And this is my problem, too—as I’ve talked about a lot recently. Frankly, I’m writing and preaching about it because I’ve only recently become aware of the extent of my resentment.

God help me, I’m the older brother! I want more than my Father has given me!

I’ve probably felt this way since I was 19 or 20 and discovered within myself an ambition for something other than God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Like the older son, I didn’t leave home—I didn’t drop out of church or abandon the faith. I became a pastor instead. “He’ll have to give me what I want now. I’m the good son!”

Like the older son, I left my Father by staying home. (For more on this, see this post: “To find God, go back to where you lost him.”)

But my case is not hopeless. In fact, what gives me hope is what I shared with you a couple of days ago:

What is our only hope in life and death?

That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.

I am not my own. I do not live for myself or my own glory. I belong, body and soul, to God. I have what I have because he gave it to me. I am where I am because he wants me to be here. I am who I am because he wants me to be this person—minus my sin. My sole purpose in life is to glorify him, and I always have the opportunity to do that, no matter what I’m going through.

This thought brings me great comfort.

Lord, give me the grace to believe it. Amen.

Sermon 11-27-16: “Mary, Servant of the Lord”

December 9, 2016

dreamstime_m_14219263

There’s a popular expression in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Expectation is a planned resentment.” Has you seen how this is true in your own experience? What God asks of Mary is beyond any expectations that she had. Yet she’s able to say “yes” to God, not because unafraid or unsure, but because she trusts that God is ultimately in control.

Please note: No video this week.

Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Last September, there was a marathon near Philadelphia. This marathon is an important qualifying race for the Boston Marathon, so many of the runners who ran it were attempting to do just that—and this race was their last chance. A part of the race course crossed railroad tracks, and wouldn’t you know it? Despite assurances from Norfolk Southern that no train would interfere with the race, about a hundred runners got stopped by a very slow-moving train. For ten minutes. One runner quoted in the article I read missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by eight minutes—so he would have made it if not for the train!

Can you imagine: Standing there, waiting for a slow train to pass, knowing that every passing second puts you further and further from your goal?

Heartbreaking! I mean, it’s one thing to pull a hamstring, or tear an MCL, or sprain an ankle, or—as I know from experience—suffer plantar fasciitis. These are all runners’ injuries—and runners accept these risks when they run. But to miss out on your dream of running in the Boston Marathon on account of a train, of all things? Who expects that to happen?

No one expects that!

Just like Mary would never have expected this angel to come to her and tell her about the role that she would play in bringing salvation to the world—this awesome privilege and responsibility that she would have have in giving birth to God’s Son Jesus and raising him as her son. Mary has often been called the “first Christian,” and when we consider her faithful response to God, we probably imagine that she’s a much better Christian than we are. She’s up on this pedestal and we’re way down here. We have trouble identifying with her. But in this sermon I want us to see how much we have in common with her. Read the rest of this entry »

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 21: Praying Boldly

December 20, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 18:9-14

On Christmas Eve, after his absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces a deposit that today would amount to over $80,000, George Bailey faces possible prison  time, because the police will think George embezzled the money. 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 desperate prayer that God would rescue him. He later contemplates ending his life by jumping off a bridge into an icy river.

Now consider the parable that Jesus tells in today’s scripture.

George tells God, “I’m not a praying man.” Like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, he knows he isn’t worthy of God doing anything for him, but he’s desperate.

How are we like George? 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.

📲 Watch a video clip of George Bailey’s prayer:

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 17: God Has Bigger Dreams for Us

December 16, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23

If you’ve seen the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, you know that George Bailey, the film’s hero, never made his dream trip to Europe. He was on his way out of town when his father, the owner of the Building and Loan, had a stroke and died. So George decides to stay behind and tie up loose ends at his father’s business. As he’s about to leave town again, this time to pursue his dream of college, his father’s business rival, Mr. Potter, tries to persuade the board of directors to shut down the Building and Loan.

Potter, you may recall, owns the only bank in town, and he’s a slumlord: Unlike George, he has an interest in keeping townspeople poor and dependent on him. He doesn’t like the Building and Loan giving his tenants opportunities to own their own homes.

So once again, George gives up on a dream and stays in town to run his late father’s business. Can you imagine his 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 that he’s not the father. Joseph 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. Joseph thinks that Mary cheated on him. Can you imagine his 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 his 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 his 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 be something we don’t 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.

When have you experienced disappointment because your dreams didn’t come true? Can you trust that God has a better dream for your life? 

📲 Watch a clip of George Bailey giving up on his dreams.

Sermon 10-11-15: “Search Me, O Lord”

October 19, 2015

Fight Songs

One important message of this psalm is that God knows us infinitely better than we know ourselves: every aspect of our past, present, and future; all our secret thoughts and hidden motives. Whether this idea is deeply comforting or deeply frightening to you will determine how we respond this psalm. God’s intimate knowledge of us, after all, is a potential problem: God knows the sin and evil that lives within us. A God who is committed to justice can’t ignore that. When David says, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God,” where does that leave us? Listen to this sermon and find out.

Sermon Text: Psalm 139:1-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In the whole history of bad ideas, I just read last week about one of the worst: It’s an app for our phones that is a little like Yelp. Yelp lets you review restaurants and other businesses. So before you try a new restaurant, let’s see what Yelp says about it. And that’s wonderful—the more information the better. But this new app, called “Peeple” will let you review—gulp—your fellow human beings. You get to assign other people a rating from one star to five stars and anyone in the world can read it. And anyone in the world can rate you—as a person. I know!

peeple_app_tweet

No good is going to come from this Peeple app—despite what the two women who created it are saying. As someone tweeted: “so #peeple is what happens when two popular mean girls from your high school grow up & decide to make a slam book for the entire world?”

Do any of us want to be scrutinized like that—to be judged like that? We work so hard on social media, after all—to put our best foot forward, to avoid being negatively judged. We’re very selective about the parts of ourselves that we show online. If you don’t believe me, have you ever watched a teenager take a selfie? Or have you ever taken a selfie with a teenager. It takes forever! Because they’re constantly taking and deleting. “No, that’s not good enough.” Taking and deleting, taking and deleting. “Finally, this one is perfect. This is the one I’ll post on Instagram!”

So we live in this age of the selfie. We live in an age that’s obsessed with taking pictures of ourselves—obsessed with superficial images. More than ever, we want people to see us, to notice us, to value us; we want people to like us on Facebook; to swipe right instead of swiping left on Tinder; to tap-tap on our pictures on Instagram.

We desperately want people to know us—or at least to know this very carefully curated image we put forward—we want them to know us without really knowing us. Because we’re desperately afraid that if people knew the real us—the real person underneath the image, the real person underneath the carefully selected selfie, the real person underneath yet another “humble-bragging” post about how wonderful our life is, our spouse is, our family is, our job is—well… if they knew that real person, we’re afraid they wouldn’t love us! Read the rest of this entry »

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

December 7, 2013

george_bailey

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. Read the rest of this entry »

If our lives were any different

December 2, 2013

IAWL

I had a blast yesterday preaching the first part of our “Reel Christmas” sermon series. Each week of Advent I’m preaching the Christmas story—and the gospel in general—using clips from holiday TV classics. Yesterday I preached Matthew 1:18-25 and showed clips from It’s a Wonderful Life to illustrate points I was making.

As always, I didn’t have time to say everything I wanted to say. For example, I could have shown the scene in which the angel Clarence gives George the alternate-history tour of a Bedford Falls in which George had never been born. George is able to finally appreciate the positive difference his life had made.

This scene would illustrate an idea about which I’ve been thinking out loud (on this blog and in sermons) for a while: God’s providence, and how we can’t begin to imagine the consequences of one choice we make over another, or God’s answering one prayer and not another. We may wish our life were some other way, but if it were, how confident are we that this “better” life would be good for us, or for our world?

What if we instead trusted that God knows what he’s doing, and that he’s given us the life we have because this is potentially the best life for us and the world? I say potentially because our own free choices (including sinful choices) play a role in the extent to which we realize this “best life.”

For any Wesleyan scholar or clergy out there: Am I correct to say that we Methodists avoid discussing providence (or the related idea of God’s sovereignty) because we worry that it impinges on human freedom? Regardless, I’m all for recovering a more robust understanding of the doctrine: I find it very comforting.

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

December 6, 2012

IAWL_still

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. Read the rest of this entry »