Gospel in Disguise
You may have seen it a dozen times. Still, if you’re like me, parts of it remain agonizing to watch. Even when you know what is coming. And yet, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie.
The Jimmie Stewart character, George Bailey, is the perfect throwback on days gone by when it was not all that uncommon for people to spend their lives giving to others — caring more about others than themselves, a character trait that is in less than bountiful supply these days. And George was unique even for his time, actually sacrificing his life and dreams to be responsible. He was community-spirit incarnate. You could depend on him even when the bottom dropped out. And even the temptation in the form of lucrative inducements from the evil slumlord Henry Potter were insufficient to make him abandon his values. However, for all the good he did he must have felt like the epitome of life on a treadmill, a mediocre guy in a quagmire of frustration — an insignificant life, certainly not a “Wonderful Life.” Insignificant, that is, as far as he knew, at that time.
Life crises are inevitable for all of us, . They seem to erupt out of nowhere. For George Bailey it is the run on his savings and loan triggered by the Wall Street collapse. His long-awaited honeymoon travel had to be “postponed.” And then, and worse yet, the loss of the deposit money by Uncle Billy on the very day the bank examiner arrived. Suddenly the life that was merely insignificant goes from ordinary to disastrous. All optimism oozes from life and desolation seems all that is left. Everything you worked for and believed in is gone in a nanosecond of adversity. All the good you had done seems of little consequence. Powerful forces of life have conspired against you and sucked away every ounce of hope. Chaos. No escape seems possible. Out with optimism — in with crisis.
Poor George Bailey. Under his stewardship the savings and loan falls apart. Irrespective of the circumstances he was responsible and would ever be held accountable and linked to crime (bank fraud) and failure. He was found wanting — Guilty. And, in a confused, near hysterical state, George reacted to his misfortune in the most unfortunate way. He lost his temper and mercilessly berated Uncle Billy who misplaced the deposit money. He frightened his wife and family by flying into an unprovoked rage at home and uttered words he would ever regret. He angrily accused his daughter’s teacher of neglect and spoke unkind words to the teacher’s husband. He got drunk in a local bar and crashed his car into a neighbor’s tree. Not so good, George.
All the good deeds, previous virtue, personal sacrifices in the past — worthless now. They could not atone for current failure and humiliation. In his mind no one could or would help him. There seemed to be only one way out — a mercifully quick plunge into the icy river. Self-inflicted termination. The ultimate surrender to helpless, guilt and shame-driven hopelessness. So that is where we find George Bailey on the dreadful night in Capra’s classic — prepared to end his own life rather than face the consequences of his actions. How very sad.
To me, the greatest tragedy of George Bailey’s downfall, his personal and spiritual crisis, is the rapid erosion of his relationships. By the time he stands on the bridge in the blowing snow, ready to end his life, George is utterly alone. One-by-one his actions tragically shut off family and friends. Only divine intervention, a miracle of heavenly love, can salvage the situation. A messenger from heaven is needed to restore this lonely man to fellowship with God and his human community.
But, there is no indication that George Bailey considered the possibility of God’s intervention. He didn’t count on God intervening.
George Bailey’s life leading up to the disaster at his savings and loan reminds one of the shepherd’s Luke described in his nativity account. These shepherds certainly weren’t the ancient equivalent of gentlemen farmers or ranchers. No. Shepherds during Luke’s time were at the bottom of society’s list of acceptable people, barely above lepers. Most shepherds were hired hands tasked with herding the sheep from pasture to pasture, tending to their wounds, birthing the lambs, and chasing away predators. All shepherds had one thing in common: They were filthy. Living out of doors 24/7 does not exactly promote personal hygiene. Shepherds smelled like sheep and all that goes with sheep. They were not only dirty, they were ritually unclean as well, having touched unclean substances on a daily basis. That disqualified them from any part of religious circles. Shepherds, as you might gather, were not often invited to social events. They didn’t belong to the local civic association, attend community block parties, or have tickets to the Redskins games. (Well, perhaps that was a blessing.) There were no Life Groups for shepherds. As far as the religious community of the day shepherds were simply non-people. They were outcasts from society; misfits. Losers with a capital “L.” Today we would say they were marginalized to the max.
But guess what. They were perfectly qualified for receiving the Gospel! And that is just what happened. They’re there, minding their own hum-drum business, out in the fields and tending their flocks. Pure tedium. Second-class citizens. Smelly, little appreciated. And they weren’t too busy on the night Jesus was born. The angel knew right where he could find them. This is what happened:
WHAM, mind-numbing boredom is replaced by stark terror! Out of the night the fear-inducing angel appears. Stupifying tedium is followed by panic and terror and then — by the thrill of . . . Gospel. Good News! Spectacular News. Here is how Luke put it:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
News like that spoken to the shepherds by the Heavenly Angels concerning the birth of the Christ Child came to George Bailey — but in a totally different form and through a different sort of angel. Just as the Great News announced to the shepherds was not what they might have expected — a Savior King disguised as a babe in a manger — George Bailey’s revelation was wrapped in the form of an Angel Second Class. Clarence. Clarence had been dispatched from the Father in Heaven to salvage George Bailey’s life from the scrap heap of depression and imminent suicide. Clearance, a comical old man/angel who wants nothing more than to win his angel wings splashes down in the river and appeals to George Bailey’s natural instinct to rescue him.
The angel in Luke’s narrative announced the good news of a baby lying in a manger, wrapped in a blanket. How simple! How surprising! And Clarence’s rescue of George, equally unexpected and surprising. 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.
At the heart of Christmas magic is a God who comes to us in disguise to be with us so that we might have abundant and eternal life. We learn that God’s ways are not ours. Our approach is to work, work, work — smarter and harder. We set out to re-engineer, to multi-task, invent, and construct. We think programs and policies and whatever new styles or strategies are in vogue will win the day — but we’re mistaken. While I would expect a Savior to come escorted by a squadron of titanium-clad, stealth jet fighters, God gives us a “who would ever have thought” baby born in a stable to an unwed Jewish teenager — an easily missed mundane infant. Such a strange way to save the world.
To the shepherds and to all humanity, the Gospel meant salvation. The child born to Mary was to be called “Jesus,” for he would save us from our sins. What greater gift could God send? Our sins have separated us from God. No matter how good and responsible and sacrificial we have been, no matter how dutiful, or how much like George Bailey prior to his tragic situation, we still fall infinitely short of the holiness that God requires. We need forgiveness and restoration. We need the acceptance of God that only comes through His GRACE — God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
At the conclusion of It’s A Wonderful Life, God’s grace came to George Bailey in the form of community. Community generosity, friends who shared their treasures, solved the financial crisis. Community forgiveness restored him to a position of love, respect, and acceptance. In one of the most famous lines in the movie Clarence reminded George, “Remember George, No man is a failure who has friends.” And so fellowship is restored along with a renewed appreciation for friends and recognition of just how wonderful they are and how much they mean. Finally, comes a tribute from the younger, Medal of Honor winning brother whose life George had saved when they were youngsters: “A toast to my big brother, George, the richest man I know.”
The fact is, we all have access to the infinite riches of God through Christ Jesus — the ultimate portal to a wonderful life. For George Bailey, life had not changed. He had. And it can for us as well. Praise God.