It’s a Wonderful Life: Hope In It
Matthew 3: 1-12
Have you ever had one of those conversations when the right person at the right time spoke that changed the way you looked at the world? I had one a few years ago. Before I grew in my understanding of social dynamics, I was a little judgmental in my attitude towards people who lived differently that I did. In my small hometown, I didn’t notice many differences between this family or that family-probably because I wasn’t looking. But when I did start to notice, I had lots of questions. If you’re in debt, why would you spend more money? If you need to eat, why don’t you sell something of value? And the biggie- If you’re trying to make ends meet, why are you spending all your money on worthless items like cigarettes? Now, I’m not proud of those thoughts, but they reflected something about my upbringing that wasn’t true of everybody…I had what I needed to live a good life. And because of that, I had hope. Lots of it. And that was the difference. I didn’t know this until conversation with the head of a local social service non-profit a few years ago. I brought these questions to her attention- concerns, really- and she gracefully looked me in the eye and gave me an answer I’ll never forget: They have no hope, Brett. They have no thought of a future, because they’re not convinced they have one.
One of the more dangerous things that can happen to a person or society is to experience hope slipping away. When we start to lose our hope, we start to lose our hearts. And when we lose our hearts, we begin to lose the very essence of what it means to be human. Numerous studies reveal that hopelessness leads to serious problems- physical, emotional and relational, and if we get to a point where we feel that hope is a pipe dream, we’re bound to throw in the towel and give up. And in those moments, those moments when we can’t see a way forward, we need a fresh voice to call us back, a fresh perspective to help us see our lives and circumstances in a different light.
George Bailey was that fresh voice for the Board of the Building and Loan. Following the passing of his father, Peter, who was the life and soul of the company, the Board was left in a quandary. They all knew Peter was the engine that made the company run, and so long as Peter was in charge, the Building and Loan had a captain to steer through the ups and downs. With Peter at the helm, the Building and Loan stayed afloat and became a source of encouragement for the average Bedford Falls resident. But now he was gone, and mean old Mr. Potter was capitalizing on the Board’s fear. Where’s all this good will going to get us, Mr. Potter asked. It’s just going to create a bunch of discontented lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class…And all because a lot of starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas. I’m guessing the Board never thought of it that way, but Mr. Potter now had their full attention. Maybe he was right. Maybe they would be better off just selling the company and cutting their losses. Maybe they were foolish, because instead of just making money, they were trying to do something hopeful for their community. Maybe it was all a waste of time. And sensing the temperature in the room changing, George Bailey stands up and utters the words that begin to turn the story around: Now hold on just a minute.
We don’t see those words in any of our texts for today, but it’s clear that God’s people needed something to turn their story around. Their lives weren’t awful, but they weren’t full of hope, either. They were stuck under Roman rule, which made it hard to accept their identity as God’s people. And the longer they waited for God to fulfill his salvation plans, the more susceptible they became to giving up and giving in. I think Zacchaeus is a great example. I don’t know if Zaccheaus was a victim of hopelessness or not, but he certainly abided by the “If you can’t beat them, join them” theory. And he hired himself out to the Romans as a tax collector and began to charge more than what the average citizen had been asked to pay. That’s a good way to lose your identity. That’s a good way to forget who you are. And it’s to that people, a people in danger of giving up, that God sends a fresh voice named John the Baptist.
Of all the Advent characters we sing about and talk about, John the Baptist is probably the least desirable. You know why? Because he’s the type of guy who loves us so much that he’ll tell us off from time to time. We need those people. We don’t always like them, but we need them. John the Baptist is an important voice. Like a doctor who tells us news we need, but don’t necessarily want to hear, John speaks truth in a way that cuts to the heart, but he does it for one reason: he wants to remind us that we are people of a different story. And there are times we get off course and forget out what and who we’re all about.
John the Baptist’s first word for us is repent, which all in all is a good word, but probably needs some redemption. It really is a word for a hope-filled people, but I’m not sure that’s the image that comes to mind when we hear it. I have a feeling that the word repent evokes some negative emotions in us, kind of like the feeling you get when you’re caught doing something you know you shouldn’t have been doing or when the doctor looks at you and says, “You really need to lose some weight.” When it’s abused, the word repent is a “bad dog” word, a word that points out all the bad things and weighs us down with guilt and shame. But that’s not the heart of this word. At its heart, repent invites us to walk in a different way, to turn from an unhealthy reality to a new one. It’s a word that speaks a fresh invitation to leave the tired, worn out ways behind, the ways that slowly decay our spiritual vitality, and instead embrace a new direction in life. And that direction, says John the Baptist, is the Kingdom of Heaven. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.
I’m sure most of the people who heard John’s invitation were a bit perplexed because it certainly didn’t look like the Kingdom of Heaven was near. And I think we would say the same thing today. Where is God when all these bad things happen? How can God’s Kingdom be real when tragedies strike? Why should I follow God when my life feels so lousy? That’s what happens when we forget that our faith is built on hope. We grow desensitized to the story that’s defined us and more importantly, we grow desensitized to the One who is writing the story – the Lord of all Creation. In a sense, that’s what was happening to the Board of the Building and Loan. They were struggling to remember their story because of unfortunate circumstances. Without Peter Bailey around, they quickly forgot the why behind the business, and it had very little to do with making money. But George’s prophetic voice called them to repent, to “hold on just a minute” and remember the truth instead of believing Potter’s lies.
There are lies all around our world that seek to drain the hope out of our souls and create a chasm between us and the deep love of Jesus Christ. And if we’re not careful, we’ll start to believe those lies. But there’s nothing a lie fears worse than the truth. Paul Joseph Goebbels, was the Reich Minister of Propaganda under Adolph Hitler and was known for touting the “big lie” about the Jewish race. In explaining his tactics, Goebbels said this: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the…consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
Despite every reason to quit believing, God’s people have always been a people of hope. And that’s because as crazy as it sounds, John the Baptist was telling the truth- the Kingdom of heaven IS near. And not long after John’s proclamation, the long awaited Savior of the Universe appeared on the scene and saved the day. But more than that, he offered with his life to save the world and set us free from the lies of evil, sin and shame. When God’s people were stuck in chains in Egypt, they held on to that future hope. When they wandered for 40 years in the desert wilderness, it was that hope that kept them moving. When Daniel was thrown into the den of lions, he, too, held on to that future hope that would one day take the form of a baby born to a virgin in Bethlehem. And now it’s our turn. This is our story, and we must hope in it. We hope in it by turning and returning to this story over and over and over again. We turn to it in the face of sickness. We turn to it in spite of darkness. We turn to it when we our love fails. We turn to it when tragedy strikes. We turn to it when our questions go unanswered and our prayers seem to fall flat. We turn to it because we need it.
At the end of his speech, his “truth-telling” to old Mr. Potter, George Bailey had one more thing to say to the Board. He couldn’t make a decision for them. They would have to do that on their own. But he could remind them of their vital work. “There’s just one more thing,” says George, “this town needs this measly one-horse institution, if only to have someplace where people can come without crawling to Potter.” This world, brothers and sisters, needs our story, as crazy as it sounds, of a God who so loved the world. Without this story, we’ll continually crawl to the lies that only leave us empty and wanting more. In Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near. So let’s turn to it. And let us return with all of our hearts, souls, mind and strength to one born in Bethlehem. Let’s place our hope in Him. Amen.