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It's a Wonderful Life

Read this message transcript from the "Box Office Wisdom: Christmas Edition" message series

Brian Cropp: Good morning. My name is Brian Cropp, one of the associate pastors, and what was that? What would possess a man to enter his house in such a fashion? Is he high? Is he crazy? No, if you've seen It's a Wonderful Life, you know what has happened to George Bailey; he has had a transformative shift in his perspective.

               Right now we're in the middle of a message series called Box Office Wisdom: The Christmas Edition. We're looking at some Christmas classics, and the messages and themes in those movies and what the Bible has to say about those very same messages. Last week we looked at the movie, Elf, and if you were here for that, you got to see Pastor Ben in just an ugly elf sweater. If you missed it, go check it out online; it's worth viewing, sort of. It's just ugly.

               It's a Wonderful Life is a movie of a different time, of a different generation, more sensible I guess. It's hard to find an ugly sweater for It's a Wonderful Life, so we get this very nice hoodie from the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan. You get this when you open an account. You don't really. There’s not really a Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan.

               The story of how the movie came to be is an interesting one. It was released in 1946 and was an underwhelming success. It fell into obscurity quite quickly, and it was not until the 1980s, when its copyright lapsed, that the burgeoning cable networks who were trying to find 24 hours of programming said, “Aha! Free movie!” So they showed the death out of It's a Wonderful Life, which is how I came to find It's a Wonderful Life. It's probably how you got to know It's a Wonderful Life. We got to live in a time where an old movie became a current, modern holiday classic movie.

               Aside from its holiday relevance, there are a lot of very significant topics that It's a Wonderful Life deals with—themes like how to deal with dreams that don't come true in life, what does a successful life really look like, and how to bear up under the responsibilities of “adulting.” I think as we look at It's a Wonderful Life and at the wisdom that it has and compare that to the wisdom of the Bible, we'll see that there are three principles that if we will use those and implement them intentionally into our lives, that we too, like George, can have a transformative value shift and perspective shift and see that our lives are indeed wonderful.

               Now, as I've said, the movie was released in 1946, you can find it in every visual media known to mankind at this point, and probably if you haven't seen this movie you know by the movie's theology how angels get their wings. There are spoilers in this message; I'm sorry you've had your chance.

               Now, the movie opens with the sounds of the good people of Bedford Falls offering prayers on behalf of George Bailey. He's had a very bad day; something is very wrong with George, and he's a very kind man. He's selfless, and if anyone in the town of Bedford Falls deserves the help of God, it is George Bailey, and so they go to God on George's behalf. I think the movie would agree with their assessment; he's a good guy. We see an early scene of him as a kid and he does something very selfless and heroic. When his brother falls in through some thin ice, George rushes in without thinking about it and rescues his brother. He's a good guy, but as he grows up we start to see there's a dark side to George Bailey. He's a little arrogant; he's often rude to folks. He doesn't think much of his small town or his upbringing, and he doesn't think very much of his dad's building and loan—this place his dad has given his blood, sweat and tears. We get to see just a little bit of a glimpse into the worldview of George Bailey in this conversation he has with his dad.

               It's interesting to compare the two men's thoughts about what leads to a successful life. George's is all set on notoriety, and his dad's is on helping his neighbor have just a little bit more comfort and ease in their life. I don't know about you, but when I hear George's dad say those words I know they're right, but my pride and arrogance know that there's more. There's something bigger. I want George's goals to come to pass because maybe in a small way, mine can too, that my life can be big and grand. If I can get past Bedford Falls, the Bedford Falls of my life, I might be able to change the course of human history, and people will remember me. How will my life amount to anything if my life is caught up in just small things? I think the Bible has some encouragement for George and for us, and it's the first principle that we can implement into our lives, and that is that we can see the wonder in small things.

               There was something our senior pastor, Harold Bullock said a few weeks ago, and my arrogance is still trying to get a handle on the implications of what he said. And that was “ what if the greatest contribution you could make to the whole history of mankind is that you raised your kids to walk in God's ways?” I'm not saying that's not important; that's what my wife and I are desperately trying to do with our kids. We hope that they do that too, but where my arrogance kind of kicks in is I realize that's exactly what my parents did. They raised my brother and me to walk in God's ways, and does anyone in here know my parent's names? No. I don't expect you to. They were just doing what God had asked them to do, and probably by the time they have great, great grandkids, none of them are going to know their names. I, if I do my job right and I raise my kids to walk in God's ways and they do the same thing and we're constantly raising the next righteous generation, four generations down they're not going to know I even breathed air. And there's a part of my pride that I want something bigger, something more out of life, and I fail to see the wonder of small things that there's maybe more going on than I realize.

               In the Old Testament, a lot of the Old Testament is this history of God's people, and we see generation after generation live and die and just completely abandon the ways of God. There comes a point when God, who's a good father, he's had enough and he says, kids, it's time for detention. And he grabs all of his kids, the Jews, and puts them in exile in another country, under a different government, and they don't like it. The good news is while they're there, they repent; they realize that they've been in sin and they repent. And God says that's great; it's now time to come back home, to come back to the promised land. He speaks through the prophet Zechariah and says this to them, "The hands of Zerubbabel ... " Now, let me pause; Zerubbabel is the leader of the Jews at this time, and let's be honest, this has to be one of the most fun words to say out loud in the entire Bible—Zerubbabel. Let's try it. Just say it, “Zerubbabel.” Yeah. Take that to work with you tomorrow; take it to school. You'll sound like a million bucks. You know something if you can say Zerubbabel.

All right, "The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house." He has led them to a spot where they can move out of exile, back into the Promised Land, "and his hands shall also complete it. And then when that happens you will know that the Lord of Hosts has sent me to you for whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice and shall see the plum line in the hand of Zerubbabel." For the Jews that have been in exile that's 70 years that they spent not where they thought they should have been, where God's promised land for them. That's 25,550 days of small things. 25,550 days of getting up, taking a shower, getting some breakfast, going to work, making sure the kids mind you, mowing the grass, paying the bills—small things, right? It'd be very easy after 70 years of this ... It's like, “This isn't how my life was supposed to go; I'm supposed to be in God's promised land. He has clearly forgotten about us; I mean it's been 70 years. He's never going to come through and fulfill the promises that he has for us.” Little do they know that all of those small days are incrementally laying a foundation where he can do something history making. He will bring large things to happen over time.

               George sees his life as suffocated by small things—his marriage, his kids, his job, the constant strain of trying to keep the evil Mr. Potter away from the people of Bedford Falls. To George every new day is a day through the meat grinder; every day is one less day he has to get outside of Bedford Falls and spread his wings of glory and see all the majesty that life has to offer. And what's worse, and where our heart really goes out to George Bailey, is he's given lots of opportunities to leave, to see his dreams come true, to get outside and explore the world and become something. And every time the little tendrils of small things of Bedford Falls come out and drag him back down. We need to see the wonder of these small things to get a different perspective on our lives, because if we don't, just like with George, there's a trap or two waiting for us if we don't change our perspective.

               The first trap that we could easily fall into is that of envy or comparison. We all know how envy and comparison work, we don't compare what we deserve with what we have. What we deserve is less than nothing, and what we have is pretty good. We have food to eat, and we have shelter, and we have clothes, and we have probably a mode of transportation to get us around town. If you have little kids you can tickle them and they laugh, and it's good things. Little, small good things, but that's not how we compare our lives. We compare what we have with what other people have, and we feel like we should have those and they shouldn't. It's not fair that they have them because we're the more important person in the universe, and we should have all the good stuff.

               Mr. Potter is described as that kind of person who is trapped by this kind of envy and comparison that he is upset and mad when people have stuff that he doesn't so he wants to take it from them. That's what he tries to ensnare George with at one point. The Building and Loan is doing pretty well, and Mr. Potter's interests are threatened, and if he could just get rid of George then he could rule the world. So he offers George a job that pays a lot of money. He'll have a lot of power and influence in town, and he gets to go traveling. It will be great, and George is almost about to bite on this hook, but he asks Mr. Potter this question, so what happens to the people of the Building and Loan if I take this job? What's going to happen to them? Mr. Potter looks at him and says, "Confound it, man, are you scared of success?" Because to Mr. Potter, success is the sum of gain plus influence, and that's very attractive to George and frankly, it's very attractive to me. But gain and influence is not the problem; it's the gain and influence at the expense of others. It's this envy, and “I want to take it from you.” That's where Mr. Potter is, and George is constantly almost trapped by this throughout the movie.

               The other trap that we can fall into is that of bitterness. The Bible has a proverb that says, "A hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life." Or we might reword the proverb that FOMO, or the fear of missing out, leads to a midlife crisis. We work for years and years and years, we grind away, and we just don't see the fruit out of our efforts and our hearts get sick and we wonder why God's not coming through in the way that we think that he should. It's really tempting for us to grow bitter at that point.

               At the end of the movie when George is having his bad day, the Building and Loan has misplaced $8,000, which in 1946 money was a lot, and they're about to go into default. They won't be able to pay their bills. George is about to go to jail for fraud because of that, and he's just under pressure—real, honest pressure. How is he going to take care of his family from jail? Bad day. He comes home, he doesn't know what to do, and so he does what any reasonable person would at that point. He yells at his kid who's playing at the piano, because that'll solve the problem, and he throws this major adult temper tantrum at home. He chews out his family; the kid's teacher calls, and he chews her out over the phone for something she had no control over, and he leaves the house. He just doesn't know what to do. So he goes to Mr. Potter and tries to see if maybe if I make a deal with the devil I'll be able to survive one more day. Mr. Potter looks at this guy and he says, "You know what George, you're more valuable to your family dead than alive." Not the encouragement that George was looking for, and so he goes to Martini's Bar. Not a good decision if you're depressed. Don't go to bars if you're depressed.

               There at the bar he just doesn't know what else to do, and he finally calls out to God, and this is what happens. This is what you get for praying. You ever had moments like that where you're at the bottom of the bottom of the bottom, and you are desperate for relief from the pressure that you're under and you cry out to God for help, and the next thing that happens is also rotten? The hope gets deferred just a little bit longer, and you feel like your life is just consumed by smallness. How am I going to move forward? I need a brand new perspective.

               Little does George know that while he is on the floor of Martini's Bar, if you've seen the movie, five minutes from now Clarence shows up. He's on the front porch of a brand new perspective, but he doesn't know that. He just sees life trapped by all these small things, and here's what George is missing. Most of our days are going to be insignificant; they're going to be filled with what we're going to perceive as small things. Now, I do think that when we actually meet Jesus face-to-face and we get to see what his view of reality was, we will see that a lot of the things that we thought were small things, in his eyes were massive things. The things that we thought were earth-shattering and hugely important were barely mentionable. All of our small days are leading to something. They are not significant in their own, but over time, as they accumulate, God is building a foundation out of our days of small things. It's important we don't despise them. We need to be patient and beware of bitterness.

               The second principle that we can implement into our lives is to invest in the good of others. This is something George does very well. Throughout the movie we see him investing in the good of others. It's that first thing we saw him do when we rescues his brother from the frozen pond. This man sacrifices so much it'd be easy for him to get a martyr's complex about all of the good he's doing for these folks and if they could just get their act together and take care of themselves, I could leave town and whatnot. We see it at his superpower, and he sees it as his number one fault. But if I think if George was a real person walking around in flesh and bone amongst us, I think God would give George a high five for his investment and his care for other people.

               We can know that because of what it says in the book of Ephesians, that “we are God's workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” This is what we were born for, that we have been created by God, and we've been created by God to do good for other people. He's mapped out our lives; he knows all of the circumstances he would like to bring us through, the ups and the downs. That is so that we can bring other people into our lives, and we can get involved in other people's lives and help them see who God is—his love, his kindness, his grace to us, the meaning and purpose in life. That is what we are here for.

               Paul, the apostle Paul, put it this way when he wrote to the church in Philippi, "Don't be selfish. Don't try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don't look out only for your own interests but take an interest in others, too." You and I might look at George's like and see echoes and shadows of our own lives. I keep wanting this goal to happen, or I want this dream to finally materialize, and then as I'm investing in other people, my money goes to their interests. My time goes to their interests, and my attention gets scattered. I can't get it together to get my stuff done, and we get disheartened that way. We don't see all of the good that's actually happening under the surface as we sacrifice our interests for the good of others.

               Jesus put it this way when we he said that “There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends.” Every time George sacrifices his goals for the good of others, he is increasing in value for those people. He doesn't see it that way; I often don't see it that way, but it doesn't make it untrue that we love people as we invest in their good.

               I see many of you do that week in and week out right here at Hope, you can come in and you participate in worship here and then you go and you serve in other places around Hope to make a Sunday morning here happen in a delightful way.

               I was at an event several weeks ago, it wasn't here at Hope. I was somewhere else, but there were several Hope folks there. And there was a Hope family with a girl about my oldest girl's age, about eight or nine years old, and she saw someone come into the room. She asked her mom and dad, “Can I go say ‘hi’ to somebody?” and they said sure. So she runs off, and it was very interesting to see who she said “hi” to. It wasn't one of her friends about her age; it wasn't some boy she thought was cute. No, it was her NRG Zone teacher, her Sunday school teacher. She ran up, said hi, and gave her a big, old hug. I know there's a level of sacrifice that it takes to get an energy zone lesson together to prepare during the week, to get the craft supplies together for all of the girls, to get into the mindset of a nine-year-old girl and all of the drama of friends and parents and teachers. How do I take the Bible, this practical book, and apply it into their world so that they also can see that right where they are the Bible is practical for how a nine-year-old is going to live in God's ways? That takes a lot of creativity and time and sacrifice.

               That little girl has no means by which to repay that teacher for the investment in her life, but she has hugs. So she pays in hugs. In some small way God is also paying that teacher in a hug and saying, “I see what you're doing; I see your sacrifice, and I approve. This is really good.” The service we give to the Lord is not in vain; it's not wasted time. It's not an investment in futility, and there are payments here, not just in heaven after we die. There are payments that God gives us in smaller and larger ways all along our lives.

               That leads to the third practice that we can put into our lives, and that is to trust that God is not going to rip me off. Of all of the practices, this has got to be the hardest one. We might be able to have a perspective where we see the good in small things and the wonder of those small things. It might be possible that we can get beyond ourselves long enough to invest in the good of others on an ongoing basis. But after awhile, after all of the grind, we want to know that there's an end, that there's a meaning and a purpose to all of this disheartening activity in our lives, and we want to know that God has some good for us.

               If we think back to George on the floor of Martini's Bar, he's just gotten hit in the mouth, and what's the next thing he's going to do? He's going to the bridge. He's about to jump off the bridge and end it all because he has forgotten that there is a God who is active and concerned about the minutia of George's life. He's convinced that God is silent in his life, and that might be where you are today, too—that God is silent, and he is not concerned. Because if he was concerned, why would he allow all of this hard, grinding stuff to happen in my life?

               Well, there are a couple of answers to that. I'm not saying they're fun answers, but they're answers. One of the answers is that God is much less concerned with your comfort and my comfort than we are. We would love a life of ease and comfort, but God wants some different stuff out of our lives. It takes different means for us to arrive at the lessons that God wants for us, and comfort is very low in making those things happen.

               The other answer is that God wants us to grow in faithfulness. It takes some different circumstances for us to see the depravity of our heart and to see what's down in there and to give that over to him and to grow in faithfulness. Faithfulness, as it turns out, is one of those hallmark character qualities of who God is and it's one of the highest things that we can have in our character as we are following Christ. The problem is we're bad at it. We're really bad at faithfulness. That's why Jesus came. That's why God the Father sent his Son here as a baby to grow up to be an adult and show us what faithful life looks like on a day-to-day basis. Out of faithfulness to His father, He goes to the cross carrying on Him all of our unfaithfulness. It’s through Jesus' blood sacrifice that God is able to see us as faithful. It's really important.

               There's a story that Jesus told his disciples about the importance of faithfulness. You can find it in Matthew 25. It's in your listening guide. It's a longer story, so I'll summarize it. There is a wealthy businessman who's going to go on a long trip; he's not telling anybody where he's going or how long he's going to be gone, but he wants his business to keep growing and thriving. So he takes three of his executives gives them different amounts of money, and says, “Hey, do with it what you like to, but I want the business to keep growing, so there will be an accounting when I come back.” That's what happens; they use the money as it seems fit to them. After a long time, unannounced, the boss comes back and there's an accounting. Two of those employees were able to report, “Hey, while you were gone I was able to double the money you gave me.”

               Now, I have little knowledge of business and investing and exactly how all of that stuff works, but I'm just going to go out on a limb and say it took a fair amount of risk and creativity and effort in order to double that money. I don't know how you double large amounts of money, but I'm guessing it took a lot of effort. A lot of work went in there while the boss was gone; they had lit a fire under themselves and did what they needed to do, and the boss is happy. He rewards them and says you good and faithful servants. There is good that comes out of this.

               Now, you may be going through a really tough time right now, and maybe you've been going through a rough time for years. Maybe you're not, but trust me it'll happen for you; there will come a time ... We're going through a very rough time, and it's very easy ... It's very important, sorry, for us to remember not to end our story early. We are a part of God's story. God is the Author of life and our lives, and we're part of His story. It's up to the author to end our part of this story. We don't have that privilege. We don't get to end our part of the story.

               Now, George is about to take a very dramatic step in ending his life by committing suicide. There are all kinds of ways that we can end our story early. They don't have to be as dramatic as suicide. We could just walk away from the faith; we can just walk away from following God's ways. “Clearly, he doesn't care about me, and I'm just going to do what I want to and invest in all of the vices and pleasures that this world has to offer; I'm just walking away all together. Or maybe my heart has grown so sick, my body is going to keep showing up to church. My body is going to keep showing up for my family, and maybe to my small group, but my heart is not here. I've checked out. I'm just not here. There's all kinds of ways that we can end our story early. But you know the end of the movie; if that had happened George wouldn't have the blessing that happens. We don't get to see all of the good that God has planned for us if we check out early. We don't get to experience moments like this.

               After all of the sacrifice that he has made, after all of the dreams he has seen die, after all of the efforts and the pressure to keep Mr. Potter away from the good people of Bedford Falls, the good people of Bedford Falls cry out to God on George's behalf; they ask God to intervene in George's life, and they also show up with the goods. They put their money where their love is, and they, with their own hard-earned cash, pay back a part of that investment that George has put into their life and help bring the Building and Loan out of default. If George had jumped off the bridge, he wouldn't have been able to experience that. It turns out that George's dad was right, that as you invest in the good of others that there is blessing. There is reward that comes out of that investment.

               Now, I am 45 years old, and I am, by math, I am in the middle of mid-life crisis zone. So I understand the pressures and the thoughts from time to time of checking out and choosing to do something else because the payoff has not yet happened. I understand that, and I understand that it's very simple for some guy to be standing on the stage and give you three happy thoughts for how to have a happy life while you're really in the trenches, grinding it out. It's very difficult to actually work these things out in a practical way, so I want to give you two questions that you can ask yourself. When you're in the middle of those hard times, you can ask these things, and it will help you shift that perspective away from “woe is me” into something that is actually helpful. You can ask these questions when things are going good, too, but we often don't ask questions. We really ask a lot of questions when things are painful for us.

               The first question is “What is God teaching through my present circumstances?” What is he teaching me about me, about him, about the people around me, about what my efforts are for? What is he teaching me?

               The other question is “how can this situation help strengthen my faithfulness to God?” If we ask ourselves these questions when things are hard, and write those down, and talk them through with trusted friends, we'll start to see that perspective shift around. We're heading into the Christmas season, and those traps of envy and comparison and bitterness are just in every ad that shows up in front of us. So I want to give us a rallying cry from the book of Galatians, that as we go through this season let's not keep these verses far from our thoughts—"Let us not grow weary of doing good for in due season we will reap if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially those who are of a household of faith.” We see the wonder of the beauty of the good, small stuff that God has put into our days as we invest in the good of others, as we are waiting for God's blessing to come to pass. We will, over the course of the accumulation of our lives, be able to look back and see his hand move through our lives and be able to see that, yes, indeed our lives were full of wonder.

               Let me pray for us. We thank you, God, for your selfless and faithful investment in us. In just a few weeks we're going to celebrate that moment when you physically stepped out of heaven and into earth, and you showed us faithfulness personified. We thank you for Christ's example and how he was faithful all the way to the cross, the resurrection, and even now. Please strengthen us in all of the mundane responsibilities you've given us to be faithful. We admit that we cannot be faithful on our own, so we ask for your help. We thank you for not grinding us to dust but providing blessing out of following in your ways. Also, Lord, we ask that you would help us to gain a new perspective, to see the wonder in the small things in the lives you've given us and see the character that you're building in us as we persevere with upbeat endurance. We love you, and it's in the wonderful name of Jesus we pray. Amen.