Today our Advent series takes us to the movie that the American Film Institute rated the #1 inspirational movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie has a very interesting history because when it was first released during the Christmas Season in 1947 it was a box office flop. While it did receive 6 Academy Award nominations including best picture, best director for Frank Capra and best actor for Jimmy Stewart, the only award it won was a technical achievement award for the development of a new method of simulating falling snow on a movie set. If you have seen the movie you know how amazing that effect was and how important the snow was for the look and feel of the movie.
Since the movie didn’t do well at the box office, it sat on the shelves for several decades and then due to a clerical error, the copyright lapsed in the 1970’s which meant that TV stations could show it for free. This is why during the 1970’s and 80’s you could find It’s a Wonderful Life on just about every TV station during the month of December. The copyright was renewed in the 1990’s so it is no longer free for TV stations, but it can still be found on several stations through the holiday season.
While the movie is well over 2 hours long, what it is known for is the final 30 minutes. What most people know about the movie is how the angel Clarence comes to earth to save George Bailey by showing him what would have happened if he had never been born. While Clarence shows George what a difference he made during his life, the real meat of the movie is actually going through George’s life and what we see is that what makes George’s life wonderful is that his life points us to the example of Jesus.
Our Advent series has walked us through some of our favorite Christmas movies to see how they point us to Christ and the real Christmas story and this movie does it in some very powerful ways. To help us see these connections, we need to first hear these words of Paul in Philippians 2:2-11.
Our attitude, words and actions need to reflect those of Jesus who was humble, sacrificial and who always put the needs of others before his own and this is what we see in George Bailey. From a very young age, George would jump in to help people without thinking of himself and it all starts here. (Clip 1 – sledding)
George set aside his own well being to rescue his brother. He didn’t think about himself and his own life or safety, he jumps in to save his brother and in the process ends up losing hearing in one ear. Clarence, the angel, was told to pay particular attention to this moment in George’s life and it comes back in an important way later on. All through the movie what we see in George is someone who doesn’t put his own wants or needs first. He always helps others.
As a boy, George also had a job in the local pharmacy and one day he noticed that his boss, Mr. Gowan, in his own grief at losing his son in the war, has filled a prescription with poison instead of medicine. George is supposed to deliver the medicine but he doesn’t and when he returns to the store Mr. Gowan beats George for not delivering the medicine. Finally Mr Gowan realizes that George has actually saved that customer’s life and his own life, business and reputation as well. It’s actually a difficult scene to watch, but is powerful when we think of how George is making the life of Christ his own.
After his graduation from High School, George is set to leave Bedford Falls to see the world and to make his own fortune. George is filled with ambition and adventure and is all set to leave town when his father dies and there is no one to run the Building and Loan except the villain of the movie, Henry Potter.
Mr. Potter is the local banker and his only concerns are power and money. He wants to control the entire town and if he can get his hands on the building and loan, then he will control everything. George is suddenly faced with a difficult decision, does he follow his dreams or does he once again put others first. (Clip 2 – building and loan)
George stays in Bedford Falls to run the Building and Loan and in time gets married. As George and Mary set off on their honeymoon they have $2,000 to take with them. In today’s world that would be about $35,000 so George and Mary are really setting out on a great adventure to see the world, but as they are leaving town there is a run on the banks. In a panic, the people want their money and once again if George doesn’t stay and help keep the Building and Loan open, Mr. Potter will gain control of everything. So George takes his honeymoon money and gives it to the people. Once again, George puts others before himself. He humbles himself, he makes himself nothing, he becomes a servant so that others can live.
Everything in George Bailey’s life points us to the real Christmas story of Jesus coming into this world. George had everything in his hands. He was filled with ambition, adventure and a courage that could have taken him around the world and made him a great success, but he emptied himself, he didn’t hold on to all that was his, he let it all go to help others. George gave it up to save others and this is what we see in Jesus. Philippians 2 says that Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to grasped or held on to but that he emptied himself, he made himself nothing, he gave himself away so that others could live. It says Jesus humbled himself and became obedient even to death on the cross. Jesus endured beatings and pain to help and save others and even a young George Bailey was willing to do the same thing.
The real Christmas story of Jesus is the story of humility. God chose to humble himself to come here and help us. God didn’t choose a wealthy couple of privilege to bring Jesus into the world; he chose a poor couple named Mary and Joseph. Jesus wasn’t welcomed by the rich and powerful but the little guy – shepherds who didn’t have anyone on their side or thinking of them. Throughout his life Jesus gave himself to those who didn’t have anything instead of seeking to get what was rightfully his and this is the attitude that the apostle Paul tells us we are supposed to have. Be like minded, Paul says. Think this way and allow this attitude of humility to shape your decisions and actions.
George Bailey had this attitude and so his life points us to Jesus and if the movie ended there it would be a good story, but it doesn’t end there. 8 years later we get to the final event that sets the rest of the movie into motion. Uncle Billy, who works with George at the Building and Loan and forgets everything, even why he has tied strings around his fingers, loses the $8,000 deposit he was to make at Mr. Potter’s bank. The money ends up in Mr. Potter’s hands, but because Potter is only interested in power and greed he sees this as a great opportunity to destroy George Bailey and the building in loan and take control of the town. George once again takes responsibility for the situation, or in the terms of Jesus, he takes on this sin, and tries to solve the problem on his own. (Clip 3 – Potter’s office)
The entire world has come crashing down on George and he becomes desperate to find an answer. As he leaves Potter’s office he realizes that he is worth more dead than alive so George comes up with his own answer to the problem. He decides to end his life by jumping from the local bridge. Before we go on, I want to be very clear that suicide is never a good solution to our problems and it is never God’s solution. Many people live with so much darkness and despair that this seems like the best answer and at times the only answer but it is important to know that this is never the best or only solution to our problems. Our life is a gift from God and God has a purpose and plan for it. God says through the prophet Jeremiah, I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
God didn’t say this to people who were living in good times, he said this to people who had been defeated in war and led away to live as slaves into a foreign land. The people of Israel were defeated in every way possible and they truly believed all hope was lost. It was the darkest times for them and was is into this darkness that God said, I have plans for you and I have a future for you. No matter what we are going through, God has a way for us. No matter what we may see in front of us, God has way for us to get through the darkness and God does have a future for us.
If you are here today wondering if there is a way out of the darkness, God wants you to hear that He does have a way for you and he does have a plan for you and God does have a future for you. This is part of the real Christmas Story. Jesus came to love us and help us and to be with us in the darkness and through Jesus we are given a way of light and hope. The Christmas carol Away in a Manger says it all, a way in a manger was given to us; a way to find life and light and love and hope. Your life is the greatest gift ever given and it should be celebrated and treasured, not thrown away. The original title for It’s a Wonderful Life was The Greatest Gift because the greatest gift given to us is the gift of our lives.
If we are experiencing the darkness of despair today, God not only wants us to know that He has made a way for us to make it through but God wants us to know that in our darkest moments, He is with us and that is what we see in the movie. In George’s darkest moment, God is there. (Clip 4 – bridge)
Clarence saves George by doing the one thing he knows will change George’s plans, he jumps in and cries for help. Clarence remembered that this is what George did for his brother and this is what George would do for anyone in need. What Clarence learned about George is that it was his very nature to not think of himself first but others, he had the mind of Christ, so when Clarence cries for help, George jumps in to save him and in saving Clarence – Clarence saves George. (Clip 5 – toll house)
From here to the end of the movie is what we tend to think about when we think of It’s a wonderful life. Clarence shows George what the world would be like if he had never been born and what George sees is that the world was a much darker place.
Bedford Falls became Pottersville because there was no one there to take over the Building and Loan and so Mr. Potter controlled it all. The people George helped through the years weren’t helped and so their lives spiraled out of control. There was no one in town to help the little guy so the little guy was taken advantage of and beaten down. What Clarence was able to show George is that he truly led a wonderful life and it is this scene which gives the movie its title. (Clip 6 – Wonderful life)
George realizes that he has actually touched many people and made a difference in the lives of those he knows and loves and once again this points us to the real Christmas story. One person saying Yes to God makes all the difference. Mary saying Yes to the Angel Gabriel made all the difference. Joseph saying Yes and taking Mary as his wife made all the difference. The real Christmas story reminds us that one person saying yes to God and embracing the mind and heart of the Christ Child can change everything. When we say yes to God and are willing to life like Jesus, our lives change everything.
The movie also gets us thinking about angels who are all over the real Christmas Story and the story of Jesus. There is the angel Gabriel that comes to Mary and the angels that proclaim the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. Angels are in the wilderness with Jesus at the beginning of his ministry and at the end with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Angels are also the ones who announce that Jesus had risen.
The word angel simply means messenger and every time they appear in the bible they are bringing some big news or communicating God’s special plan. While some angels might be celestial or spiritual beings, some angels come in the form of ordinary men and women, like the strangers that show up to Sarah and Abraham to tell them that in their old age they will have a child. Clarence was a messenger sent to George at just the right moment and the message he brought was: your life matters. The people of Bedford Falls were the angels sent to George at just the right moment with the same message; your life matters.
God gives us this message through others and God calls us to share this message with others and when we receive it and when we share it something wonderful happens. We are filled with Joy. Here’s what happens when Clarence finally gets through to George that he is living a wonderful life. (Clip 7 – Joyful George)
And then here is what happens when the town shares this message with George. (Clip 8 – Joyful town)
When we are ministered to by God’s angels we are filled with joy and when we act as God’s angels and give ourselves to others – we are filled with Joy.
It’s a Wonderful Life points us to the real Christmas Story because it proclaims the message, your life matters. Our life matters so much to God that he came down in the person of Jesus to rescue us and our life matters so much to God that God is always with us. We hear this in John 3:16 which says… for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
The movie also points us to the real Christmas Story because it reminds us that we are live the life of the Christ Child who humble himself and lived for others. While the world might see this as a burden and life of sacrificial pain, the truth is that this kind of life brings great joy. George had the mind and heart of Christ and he truly lived a wonderful life, that is the Christmas story we are all called to live.
It’s a Wonderful Life
1. Clarence is an angel sent by God to save George Bailey. Read and reflect on other angel stories in the Bible. What message, plan and hope were these messengers sent to bring?
• Genesis 16 – Hagar
• Genesis 18:1-15 – Abraham and Sarah
• 1 Kings 19:1-9 – Elijah
• Luke 1:26-38 – Mary
• Matthew 4:1-11 – Jesus
• Luke 22:39-46 – Jesus
• Luke 24:1-8 – The women at the empty tomb
2. What angels have you experienced in life? Remember, the most common form of angels are the messengers God sends in human form. Share these angel stories with others.
3. How can you be an angel to someone this week, or through this Advent / Christmas Season?
4. Read Philippians 2:2-11. Identify all the traits of Jesus that we are to make our own. Set goals for this season and the New Year that will help you be “like-minded”.
5. Who do you know that needs to be told that they are living “A Wonderful Life”? Experience the joy of this season by telling them how much they mean to you.
6. Prepare for next Sunday by watching Elf.