SermonCentral Editor’s note: J.John, a Greek Cypriot, has been described as "The Billy Graham of Great Britain," speaking to more than 300,000 people in person each year. He has authored 21 books and has more than one million copies in circulation. You may learn more about his ministry at: http://www.philotrust.com/
As the seasons change, many of us find that the annual arrival of Christmas characterises the passing of yet another year. For some, Christmas marks the close of a year brimming with happy and joyful memories whilst others remember only sadness and disappointment. Perhaps dreams for the past year were never realised and last year’s resolutions seem nothing but a distant past.
Glancing at the festive period television guide, a film that our eyes will certainly glimpse is ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, first made in 1946. The highly acclaimed film directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, remains one of today’s most popular Christmas films. Although those of us who have seen the film would unwaveringly class it as a ‘feel-good’ movie, the first part of the film comprises a far from ‘perfect’ story. The scenes trace the darkness of George’s (the leading character) mood as his mounting personal and financial troubles plunge him to the brink of ruin and into an abyss of despair and suicide. This is a story about broken dreams.
If someone were to ask us if we had a ‘Wonderful Life’, what would our response be?
In fact, how would we define a ‘Wonderful Life’? Perhaps one filled with material gain, financial prosperity or a successful and ever thriving career? Maybe a life packed with adventure, enriched by frequent and luxurious visits to far-off distant lands?
Yet, realising that another Christmas has come swiftly upon us, do we wonder if there is something more? More than we have yet to experience or discover? Is there some other ingredient to life that without which, we simply cannot call our own life ‘Wonderful’?
The working title of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was originally ‘The Greatest Gift’. What ‘greatest gift’ at Christmas could possibly be enough to shatter our previous dulled experiences and reveal to us something new for the years to come?
At Christmas, we remember a man, born in a Bethlehem stable, who promises us exactly this. Indeed, Jesus Christ offers the gift of a ‘Wonderful’ Life. Jesus told us “My purpose is to give life in all its fullness” The Bible John 10:10.
JUST AN ORDINARY LIFE IN BEDFORD FALLS?
‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ tracks the fortunes (or misfortunes) of George Bailey, the unsung, beloved hero of Bedford Falls, whose every attempt to leave what he perceives as a humdrum existence in this small town is stunted for various reasons. As a child, George was selfless, risking his own life (and losing his hearing in one ear) to save his younger brother who fell into a hole in the ice. As an adult, he gave up his dreams of travelling the world and going to college to stay at home and manage the Bailey Building and Loan Society after his father had passed away. Despite knowing that he had been forced into a job that he never wished to pursue, George is hard working and generous-hearted. During his career, he is offered a business proposition promising an impressive wage, ‘the best house in town’ and holidays to Europe from his archrival Potter who seeks to buy George’s business and thereby gain a town monopoly. However, George rejects these offers because of his principles and in respect for his deceased father’s occupation.
Noble as his decisions seem to an objective audience, George becomes increasingly embittered, hardened and angry. He never leaves Bedford Falls, is married, has two children and watches his friends achieve ‘great things’. Meanwhile, George sees only wasted opportunities and regrets everything around him, feeling that life is passing him by.
This resentment turns to desperation when George’s absent-minded and eccentric uncle misplaces $8,000 leaving the company in a hopeless situation. His business rival Potter now has a major advantage and George feels doomed to failure with bankruptcy and a prison sentence seeming imminent. After a storming rage at home where George pushes his wife and children away, he gets hopelessly drunk at a local bar where he is punched and scorned by a schoolteacher’s husband and left bewildered, lost and alone.
LOST AND BROKEN DREAMS
I think that many of us can relate to the character of George Bailey in this film. At the climax of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, George looks back at his life as little more than wasted potential. His huge boyhood dreams to become an adventurer have amounted to nothing, whilst his vision to escape the mould of his family’s seemingly insignificant small-town traditions and become something significant just never materialised. On Christmas Eve, after mentally scanning his life George honestly believes that he is truly a waste of space and he contemplates suicide on the edge of a bridge. Bitter, resentful and angry, he slumps his head in his hands and prays to God.
“Dear Father in heaven. I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there. Show me the way. Please show me the way”.
A WASTED LIFE?
Convinced that he is worth ‘more dead than alive’, George wallows in regret over his seemingly pointless and wasted life. He is rescued by the intervention of a lovable and bumbling guardian angel called Clarence, who has come to Bedford Falls in answer to desperate, calls of prayer, to show George that his life is worth living. George, who believes the world would have been a better place without him, wishes he had never been born and Clarence grants his wish Clarence assures him “you don’t know all you’ve done” and shows George Bailey how very different the lives of his family and friends would have been if he had never lived.
As he and George travel through this nightmarish alternate reality, they observe how much worse off many people would be if George was not around. As Clarence reminds George “ One man’s life touches so many others, when he’s not there, it leaves an awfully big hole”.
George comes to realise that although he never fulfilled his boyhood dreams, he was far more significant to others than he had previously imagined. In the alternative life, Mary, George’s wife, is a lonely spinster; his younger brother, Harry, is dead; George’s uncle, Billy, is in an insane asylum and Potter owns the entire town having transformed the idyllic Bedford Falls into ‘Pottersville’, an unrefined, coarse place heaving with dubious-looking bars. The individuals that George had given time to without even realising it were in a far sorrier state and he decides in that moment “ I want to live again”.
George finally realises the richness of his life and he returns to his family to discover that the population of Bedford Falls, all of whom George has affected for the better, have combined their savings to save him from impending bankruptcy.
WHERE IS OUR WEALTH?
Throughout his life, George lived by a creed that always placed human need above riches, and as a result, his only real wealth was found in his family and friends.
Jesus, in the Bible reminds us of the infinite value of investing ourselves in the world of people instead of the world of money and possessions.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” Matthew 6:19-21.
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ has earned its legion of followers because it so effectively touches upon one basic truth of life; that each of us, no matter how apparently insignificant, has the opportunity to make a difference. It shows that the measure of our humanity has nothing to do with power, position or possessions, but how we live our lives on a day-to-day basis. The film highlights the importance of the individual and that each one of us, being born for a purpose, cannot be a failure.
WHY ARE OUR LIVES IMPORTANT?
Of course in theory we respond to these ideas positively and long to find deeper purpose in our lives. Yet we can also relate to the disappointment that George expresses, when we feel deprived of other people’s opportunities or we sense we have somehow never reached our potential. Perhaps, at times, we have made sacrifices for people and never been rewarded.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God says to us “My purpose is to give life in all its fullness”. This Life is ‘Wonderful’ because it enables us to reach our potential. Such a promise seems alien to the troubled, broken lives that surround us. Lives where disappointment and shattered ideals wear us down. A world where many people have come to exist with numbed and neutral expectations.
However, the good news is that for all of us, Christmas can be a time where our eyes are opened to the value that we, as individuals have in this world. Here we can see what God has to offer us in this world and the next and realise the purpose for which we were created was to enjoy God’s ‘wonderful’ life for us. Just as the angel, Clarence came down and saved George, so God, who values each one of us, came into this world in Jesus Christ to demonstrate He loves and cares for us more than we can imagine. Whatever our past has been, Jesus promises to help us change so we can have a fulfilled future.
It was when George prayed that things changed. His prayer came from his desperation, and it was answered in an unexpected way. We, like George, have an opportunity to see to the heart of what is important in this life. We are still alive and can make the coming year a wonderful one.
This Christmas need not be another one to drift past in a daze of tinsel and turkey. Just as George Bailey had a choice to make between life and death upon a bridge on Christmas Eve, so too we can choose to turn from the hurts and disappointments of our past and start afresh; removing ourselves from the centre of our self-created web of life and receive Jesus Christ who is ‘the Greatest Gift’ and who can guide us into a fuller life, the truly ‘Wonderful’ life.