What do you need when you have spent your whole life giving to others, sacrificing your dreams to do the responsible thing, being the person others count on when the chips are down; when you are tired of being “that guy” that everyone looks to but no one appreciates?
What do you need when you are plagued by a continual low grade sense of frustration, disheartened over the mediocre hand life has dealt you, discontent with feeling stuck on the treadmill of a pedestrian, insignificant life?
And what do you need when, in a moment, out of nowhere, it looks like it might all fall apart; when you face a crisis, when it looks like you will lose everything you have worked for, when all the powerful elements of life are conspiring against you and you are backed into a corner from which you see no escape; when you realize that all the good you have done is impotent to help you now?
You need the Gospel.
Bailey was a giver. He was the ultimate Boy Scout, giving to others and helping his family, neighbors, and community. As a boy, he saved his little brother’s life when the lad plunged through a hole in the ice while sledding. Working at the local pharmacy, he helped avert a tragedy when he caught a mistake made by the alcoholic druggist. When his father died unexpectedly, George Bailey took over the family business, abandoning his own dreams in the process. As the head of the local savings and loan, he was generous to a fault, assisting neighbors in need and in trouble. When the bank rejected loan applications, George would approve them in order to help workers in the community make a life for their families.
This is not the life George had planned. He longed to travel, see the world, break out of the small town isolation of Bedford Falls. He wanted his life to count for something big. He longed to pursue great accomplishments and make a name for himself. He dreamed the American Dream.
However, one day an employee somehow lost a bundle of money while going to make a deposit. The business couldn’t cover the loss, and the money was nowhere to be found. It looked like the end of the savings and loan, bankruptcy, embezzlement charges, prison, scandal and shame. George Bailey became so desperate that he even went begging for a loan from Mr. Potter at the bank, his family’s long time hated competitor. He found no help from the old man, only mocking and scorn. Potter’s searing words, “You’re worth more dead than alive!” echoed in the beleaguered man’s head, and soon, George found himself standing on a bridge, contemplating a suicidal dive into the icy waters below.
And then . . . Gospel. Christmas-like good news, akin to that spoken by the angels to the shepherds concerning the Nativity, came to George Bailey.
As at Christmas, the Gospel came to him in disguise. The angels in Luke’s narrative spoke good news of a baby lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. How simple! How surprising! At the heart of Christmas is a God who comes to us in disguise to be with us that we might have abundant and eternal life.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, the good news comes to George Bailey in the form of Clarence, AS2 (“Angel, Second Class). A funny old guy, he grabs George’s attention by splashing down into the river and appealing to the downhearted man’s natural personality and instincts to help others. George rescues him, but in the process embraces the one who will ultimately bring God’s salvation to him.
And so we learn that God’s ways are not ours. When humans design a plan to change the world, we pull out all the stops and engineer huge projects for maximum impact. God visits us in the form of a baby. He sends a messenger we easily miss for his mundane appearance. As the song says, this is such a strange way to save the world.
As at Christmas, the Gospel came to George Bailey to bring him forgiveness and restoration. The angels told the shepherds that the baby would be the world’s Savior. Matthew’s account tells us they would name him “Jesus,” for he would save us from our sins. Of all the gifts we need from God, we need this most. Our sins have separated us from God. No matter how good and responsible we have been at sacrificing for others and fulfilling our duties, we all fall short. We need the word of forgiveness. We need to be restored. In our poverty, we need the riches of God’s grace and acceptance.
This poor man George Bailey was in crisis. Under his watch, the business had fallen apart. No matter how it had happened, the buck stopped with him and his name would be forever associated with crime and failure. Guilty. He had lost his temper and mercilessly berated the employee who made the mistake. Guilty. He had flown into a rage in the presence of his wife and family, frightening them and saying words he would forever regret. Guilty. He had angrily denounced a local teacher, taking out his inner chaos on her by falsely accusing her of neglecting his daughter. Then later got into a public spat with the teacher’s husband. Guilty. He sought refuge in a local bar, got drunk, and drove his car into a neighbor’s tree. Guilty. He prepared to end his own life rather than face the consequences of his actions. Guilty.
All the good deeds he had done were of no avail now. All the sacrifices he had made in the past could not make up for the failures of the present. No one could or would help him. He saw only one way out. Guilty, helpless, and hopeless.
He didn’t count on God intervening. Through a process of “conversion” that his angel buddy Clarence walked him through, George Bailey came to appreciate that God’s riches were available to reverse his poverty and transform his life.
As at Christmas, the Gospel came to George Bailey in the fellowship of others. The shepherds who heard good news went together to Bethlehem to see what the Lord had done. They went together, they saw together, they rejoiced together, they shared the good news with others together, they returned to their flocks together. The news that came to them from heaven bound their hearts together on earth.
The story of George Bailey’s downfall is the story of his gradual separation from the people in his life. His personal and spiritual crisis played out as a relational crisis. By the time he stands on the bridge in the blowing snow, ready to end his life, George is utterly alone. Step by step, he has shut out everyone around him — his employees, his neighbors, even his own wife and children. It takes a messenger from heaven — in human form — to restore this lonely man to fellowship with God and his human community.
The ending of It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the iconic scenes in movie history. How is George Bailey’s financial crisis averted? It happens through the generosity of his friends, who come to his house and give of their treasures to help the one who has been such a friend to them over the years. Fellowship is restored. A renewed appreciation is gained for the people in his life and how wonderful they are and how much they mean. Clarence says to him, “Remember George, No man is a failure who has friends.”And his younger brother raises “A toast to my big brother, George, the richest man I know.”
Finally, as at Christmas, the Gospel gives George a new perspective on his vocation. In the Christmas story, Luke tells us that the shepherds “returned,” that is, they went back to their work, to their flocks, back out into the fields to take care of the sheep. Their work hadn’t changed. They had. They still had the same calling for their work in the world. Now they approached it as transformed people. What had formerly been mundane and ordinary now became the arena in which they lived out their new life in Christ.
It’s possible to imagine George Bailey never did leave Bedford Falls. He had always dreamed of a wonderful life somewhere else, but his “conversion” experience helped him realize how truly extraordinary his ordinary surroundings and circumstances were. One imagines that he went right back to work at the savings and loan, that he sought forgiveness for his churlish behavior from those whom he had hurt, that he became an even more generous and giving man than he had been before, and that he and his family lived out a “wonderful life” for the rest of their days in that small town.
Life hadn’t changed. George Bailey had. And that made all the difference.
• • •
“I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” (Luke 2:10) — good news of God who comes to us in disguise, to bring forgiveness and restoration, to transform our relationships with others, and to send us back to our “ordinary” lives with a renewed sense of vocation.
It’s a wonderful Gospel.