As we come to this final Sunday of Advent, sitting on the verge of our celebration of Christmas, we have reached our penultimate movie in our Advent series, Christmas at the Movies. Throughout this season, we have been reflecting on some of our favorite Christmas movies to find a message of Christmas that is congruent with the story of Christmas as offered in the scriptural text. We have had to dig deep in some cases, looking past the secular plot line, to find a truthful message that connects with the hope of God’s love as offered in the birth of Emmanuel, Christ, who is God with us.
We began with the movie Elf, and heard how the code of the elves calls us to treat every day as if it were Christmas, how there’s room for everyone on the nice list, and how singing loud for all to hear is the best way to spread Christmas cheer.
The second week we studied Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and heard a message that calls us to see beyond the bows, trees, gifts, and food that often clutter the Christmas season, and to claim a more faithful celebration of Christmas on the foundational message of God’s love that is offered in the birth of Christ.
Last week we took a trip to the North Pole on the Polar Express, and we were offered a message that calls us to have belief in the unexplainable, yet most assuredly undeniable, promise of hope that God offers to each of us in Christ our Lord.
This Saturday, at 5:30pm on Christmas Eve, we will finish the season of Advent and welcome in the season of Christmas with our concluding movie, the Charlie Brown Christmas special. I hope you and your families can be with us if you’re in town. And I name this as a reminder, we will not have worship here in the building next Sunday on Christmas Day – you have a copy of next Sunday’s worship service in your bulletin this morning. You are invited to worship where you are next Sunday morning – whether that be here in the area with family or friends, or to take worship with you if you are travelling for the Christmas celebration.
Today, we are looking to an old favorite to glean a faithful message on this last Sunday of Advent. It’s a Wonderful Life was first released on the big screen in 1946. The movie was a flop. Though nominated for three Academy Awards, the only Oscar it won was a technical award for the snow effect that is seen at the end of the movie. The film lost nearly $500,000 on its box-office debut.
Due to licensing restrictions, the movie was nearly forgotten. In 1970, when the restrictions lapsed, the major networks started airing the movie as a Christmas special. Over the past 47 years, the movie has gained popularity and today, is considered one of the greatest Christmas movies.
How many of you have seen the movie?
The movie offers us a great message of living with the promise of the light of God in Jesus Christ even amidst a life that seems clouded in great darkness. In fact, I would argue, the movie is largely about having the spirit of endurance amidst season after season of disappointment and loss.
George Bailey is our main character, played by the well known actor, Jimmy Stewart. George is an ambitious young child from the small quiet town of Bedford Falls. He has grand visions for his life, which include going off to college, becoming an architect, and travelling the world. He has every hope of leaving the small town of Bedford Falls, which he finds to be below his capabilities and potential. Yet, as we witness throughout the movie, there are multiple set-backs that keep George from ever leaving his home town.
We begin to learn about George as a child. At a young age, George and friends were playing on a frozen lake, sledding on snow shovels. George’s brother, Henry, slides down the snow and across the lake, only to fall through the ice. George, being a caring brother, jumps into the frozen lake to save his brother. The rescue of his brother costs George his ability to hear in one ear.
Fast forward to George’s graduation from high school. He is preparing to leave for college, yearning to get out of Bedford Falls. However, his father has a stroke, and dies shortly thereafter. George’s father had been the owner of a local Bank and Loans company, which offered loans to some of the poorest members of the Bedford Falls community. George, who had postponed leaving for college to help transition the Bank and Loans, now stands with his train ticket in his hand, waiting to leave for college. But at the request of the Board of Governors, George is left with a difficult decision – stay and take his father’s position as the owner of the Bank and Loan, or leave for college and let the Bank and Loan be sold off. George makes the difficult decision to stay – forgoing the college opportunity for the family business.
Time and time again, George finds himself facing disappointing and difficult decisions. Each time a decision is put before him, he gives up of his own desire for grandeur for the sake of the people around him. He gives up his honeymoon and the money he and his wife had saved for travelling the world; he gives up his dream for a big and beautiful home and he moves into an old drafty place; he gives up opportunities for high-paying jobs that would move him out of Bedford Falls and allow him to travel the world.
These decisions all pile up on him and come crashing down one Christmas Eve. His uncle, a co-owner of the Bank and Loan, had lost $8,000 that were needed to save the business. Convinced that his life is ruined, convinced he will end up in jail, convinced there is nothing more worth living for, George goes out drinking, leaves the bar and crashes his car, and he finds himself standing on the edge of a bridge ready to end it all.
It is there on the bridge that George meets Clarence – an AS2 – an Angel, Second-class. Clarence has been sent by God to help George find value in life. Clarence doesn’t give George any money, he doesn’t rescue the Bank and Loan, and he doesn’t help him find everything he’s lost. Clarence instead offers George a glimpse at life as though he were never born. In effect, Clarence shows George the butterfly effect of his birth – he shows him how different things would be for his hometown had he never been born.
Clarence offers for George a different focus for life. Instead of focusing on all that has gone wrong, Clarence convinces George to see life for all that has gone well. In a season of darkness in his life, Clarence helps George see the light.
Our Biblical foundation for faith is full of examples of God’s faithful prophets and followers seeing through seasons of darkness to find the presence of the light. In the Biblical witness, many of these stories are marked by a transitional word that shifts the focus of God’s people from the darkness to the light. One common example is the word, ‘nevertheless.’[i]
In the age of Israel before Christ, there were times of exile for the people of God. Israel had been overtaken by the Assyrians and Babylonians. They had lived through a time of great darkness, kicked out of their home land, and many were at their breaking point. They had reached the point where they thought they could no longer depend on their faithfulness to get them through exile.
In the eight chapter of Isaiah, the prophet is speaking about these members of Israel who had started to turn from God to other sources for hope and promise. Starting in verse 19, we read, “If people say to you, ‘Consult the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter; should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living, for teaching and for instruction?’ surely, those who speak like this will have no dawn! They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their gods.” Isaiah is naming the situation that is happening as members of the community get to the point at which they believe they have nothing left for which to live – when their life is filled with utter darkness. At that breaking point, they begin to turn from faithfulness to find other sources of fleeting hope.
But then in chapter 9, Isaiah speaks this transitioning word to a people who are lost in darkness. “Nevertheless,” he says, “Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed … The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.” Isaiah offers the same promise as Clarence. He says, look, I know things have been less than stellar; I know things look real dark in your world right now … but wait, there’s a lot going on here that still offers the promise of hope and light in the midst of the darkness.
We see the same situation back in Judges, chapter 2. It’s the story of the death of Joshua, who had been a great leader for Israel. During his tenure, the Israelites worshipped the Lord all their days. But after his death, after his leadership had been forgotten, the people of Israel had no hope for the future. We pick up in verse 11, “Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshipped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. … Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them … and they were in great distress.”
The people had lost hope because their faithful leader was no longer with them. They had no hope, and their lack of hope was compounded by defeat at the hands of enemies. They had turned from God, turned from the covenantal promise of God. But then in verse 16 we find our turning point again, “Nevertheless!” Though all seemed to be lost, though life seemed hardly worth living, “nevertheless, the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.”
Time and time again, we see the same story. Life seems to be so hard, the darkness seems to be so deep, that we begin to give up hope in God and in humanity. But God has not left us, and though much of life seems to be too hard, we hear the voice of God saying, “nevertheless!” “Your family situation is difficult, nevertheless, God says, I am here to sustain you!” “2016 has been a miserable year, nevertheless – God’s love remains steadfast!” “You’ve had trouble finding or keeping a job, nevertheless – God will continue to call you to serve and will provide you the gifts you need to respond!” “People are being killed around the world, nevertheless – God is still empowering the church to respond with the gift of new life!”
Every time the darkness seems to overcome, God breaks forth with this promise, “Nevertheless, I am sending you my Son.
The scripture passage read today offers us the lone story of Simeon in the Biblical text. Jesus has been born and as customary, Mary and Joseph travel to the Temple in Jerusalem to dedicate their first-born child to God. He is named Jesus, as promised by the Angel. As Mary and Joseph arrive in the Temple, they find this man there named Simeon. We’re told that Simeon is a devout man, faithful and righteous. He seems to be an older man who is nearing the end of his life. We’re told that he has been guided by the Spirit, and that it has been revealed to him he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Again, led by the Spirit, Simeon has gone to the temple to pray, and just happens to be there when Mary and Joseph enter with the infant Jesus.
Simeon takes the child into his arms. Having taken the child, like all the others we have read about this season who met Christ, Simeon breaks out in a song of praise, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s offering God’s grand ‘nevertheless.’ Hear his words, and hear the praise he sings to God! Though I’m old man, ready to pass from this life, nevertheless, mine eyes have seen salvation in this child! Though I have waited for so long to receive the promise of the Spirit, nevertheless, here it is in my hands today! Though we are a divided world of Gentiles and Jews, nevertheless, this child comes to offer hope and peace for both! Those we are living in a time of great darkness, surrounded by the empires who lord over us, nevertheless, the Lord’s word is fulfilled, and I am dismissed in peace!
I don’t know why life gets so hard. I don’t know why 2016 seems to have been a most miserable year. I don’t know why darkness seems to celebrate in victory. I don’t always know what to offer when times and life are at their worst. But I do know this, even when such disappointment and disaster seems impending, I know that nevertheless God’s love remains steadfast. I know that nevertheless, the Lord of all creation offered his life as one of us, in a manger some 2000 years ago, that we might know what true love looks like. I know that amidst such pain and darkness, that nevertheless God sent a great light in the infant Jesus, a light to out shine all darkness.
George Bailey was struggling with failed plans and great pain. He found himself on the brink of giving in to the darkness, standing on the edge of the bridge. Nevertheless, God revealed to him the great work and the great love that had been experienced by his community because of his life. God showed him the hope of new life.
Darkness may loom over us. Nevertheless, Christ is to be born in a manger, offering a great light that outshines all darkness. As our season of Advent comes to a close this week, I invite you to be prepared for God’s Word, come as flesh, to speak once more a divine nevertheless. May we be prepared to hear the Word of God, to witness the birth in Bethlehem, and to rejoice together in the celebration of the birth of our King. Thanks be to God, Amen.