It’s a Wonderful Life: Embrace It Luke 2: 41-52
Dec. 30, 2019
Today we’re concluding our Advent sermon series on It’s a Wonderful Life. And I hope you’ve found this Christmas classic a fun way to spend your weekends gearing up for Christmas Day. I’ve enjoyed retelling this story and gleaning spiritual truths from George Bailey and company. Sometimes we just need a fresh perspective, like George, to help us see our lives differently. And once we get that new perspective, once we see what God is up to with us, our next challenge is to embrace it. I invite you to read with me…
Now that the calendar is about ready to turn, we’re at the annual juncture when people begin to ponder the big questions of life. I guess the end of one year and the beginning of a new one is natural time for reflection, to think back to what was and look forward to what could be. Pretty soon, you’ll begin to see it everywhere. People will start to jot down goals, make some changes, develop some new habits and hopefully experience something their heart is yearning for. And usually at the center of all those changes is an attempt to find some type of meaning and purpose.
Purpose is a really, really good word, and I’m all for purpose. We’ve been created with this inward longing to live purpose-filled lives, but I think purpose has become an overused buzzword in our culture. It’s almost become like an idol that we’ll do anything to find. Usually when people say they’re looking for purpose, what they mean is that they want to spend their days doing something meaningful, effective and lasting because they want their lives to count for something. Take George Bailey for example. He didn’t want to miss out any of life’s adventures. He had plans to travel the globe, explore exciting places, build big buildings. He even offered to lasso the moon for Mary. And we all have our own ideas and yearning and dreams to live a life the counts. I’m just not sure our usual ways of looking for purpose are helpful. As writer K.B. Hoyle reminds, “If George Bailey’s story was told in 2018, he would leave Bedford Falls to chase his dreams, he would self-actualize with a sidekick angel who helps him find the power within himself, and most likely he would defeat the evil Mr. Potter and kick him right out of town.” But that’s not the way George Bailey’s story plays out, nor is it the way our lives will play out if we desire to build them around Biblical teachings.
One of the challenges we have with faith today is that we want the Bible to fit our lives instead of the other way around. I think we get into all sorts of trouble when go that route. The Bible is meant to shape our lives and draw us into an ever-growing relationship with Jesus, but more often than not we’re guilty of trying to fit the Bible into what we already we believe, as if we hope the Bible will somehow conform to us. And that’s bound to sound a disappointing note on our quest for purpose. Because no matter how hard we read the Bible, there just isn’t a step by step set of directions for how to discover purpose. There’s no “Purpose 101” class that teaches us how to find what we’re looking for. And the reason for this is simple: Purpose usually isn’t something we have to go looking for. It typically finds us.
Take a quick look at some of the more notable names in Scripture and you’ll see what I mean. Very rarely does someone go looking for purpose and actually find it. Instead, God seems to tap the shoulder of these unsuspecting men and women and says, “Guess what? I have a plan for you.” Moses was watching sheep when God called. David was a young boy out in the fields. Mary was preparing to spend her life as Joseph’s wife. And purpose found them out. Right where they were. God moved into their neighborhood, into their obscure, out of the way lives and delivered meaning and purpose to them. Even Jesus has a story like this.
We don’t know much about Jesus early childhood, but chances are it was a pretty straightforward life. There’s no story about running away from his Bethlehem roots to “find himself,” no attempt to take a long journey to discover something new and profound, no getting into exorbitant amounts of debt to find the next “feeling.” Instead, Jesus’ calling comes in the midst of the ordinary and routine framework of his parents’ home and teaching. Every year they went to the temple. Presumably, Joseph and Mary taught Jesus about the importance of worship- things like offering sacrifices, praying and living out a covenant with God. And it stuck. We call this a “sticky faith.” Something about Joseph and Mary’s commitment to God “stuck” to Jesus. He caught the faith bug. And when they were ready to leave the temple that day, Jesus wasn’t. He stayed behind and lingered.
Jesus’ first order of business was to sit and listen to others. I appreciate this so much. Even as a 12 year old, Jesus understood that it’s best to glean from others – wiser and older- before jumping headlong into something new and bold. That’s good advice. We have a lot to learn from those who have already been down the road we’re walking. And before making any decisions, we should do as the young Jesus did. He listen to their stories, their experiences, their mistakes, successes and failures. And he listens to their faith. Somewhere along the line he would’ve heard how they began to make sense of the lives in light of God. He would’ve heard the old stories of prophets yearning for a Savior, and Israel longing for hope, and creation groaning for redemption…and how God had a plan to make all of this happen.
And so naturally, his second order of business was to ask questions. I’ve often wondered what Jesus would’ve asked. Maybe how they knew God was real? Or why they trusted God’s promises? Or how they saw God’s plan unfolding? Whatever he asked, little by little, the pieces started to come together. Jesus began to understand that he was part of God’s plan, that he would be the answer to all of creation’s deepest yearnings. And then he goes home. That might be the most surprising development of this story. All of this excitement, all of this purpose-driven discovery, and Jesus goes home! Doesn’t that sound a bit strange? With so much good to do in the world, a world that needs him, why on earth would Jesus go home after embracing God’s wonderful call on his life?
To understand the answer to that question, we have to first understand the type of life Jesus willingly embraced. It’s a different type of life we’re used to, but we need to acknowledge it if we want to be like him. As Easter reminds us, the baby born in Bethlehem was born for a very specific purpose: He was born to die. And that history-changing death would bring life to all who seek him. And on Good Friday, some twenty years after that famed temple visit, Jesus, as a young man, would breathe his last and proclaim, “It is finished.” That’s the future Jesus embraced as a 12 year old boy, a future marked by a cross that would demand his unrelenting love. And it would change the world. It would be one of the most powerful days this world has ever witness. But Jesus embraced more than a cross that day in the temple. He embraced a certain way of life, a life that daily takes up a proverbial cross and dies to self so that others can live. And the first place we’re called to live out that self-denying life is home sweet home.
Dying to self isn’t our usual pathway to purpose, but the more we learn about Jesus, the more we see that this his way. I think it’s safe to say that Jesus didn’t embrace the YOLO way of life. Do you know what that is? It’s the “you only live once” philosophy, so you better do as much as you can before your time is up. But that’s a misunderstanding of eternal life and God’s goodness. YOLO suggests that if you truly want to experience God’s best you better lasso the moon. But Scripture suggests if you really want to experience God’s best, you need to give your life away! And although it’s never stated in the movie, that’s how George Bailey lived his life.
“Wonderful” might not be the term George Bailey would use to describe his life. There was a lot he would’ve changed if he could. He had plenty of problems and unrealized dreams. But after a closer look, George Bailey’s life was more than wonderful- it was life-giving. A lot of people found purpose because of George. A lot of people found the strength to keep going and not give up because of the way he lived is life. You see, every opportunity George had to bless others, he did it. Sometimes he did it begrudgingly, but he always did it. His dreams of moving on to bigger and better things? He gave it up to save his father’s Building and Loan. His hard-earned honeymoon money? He gave it away to help his frantic community. His own attempt to take his life? Even that was thwarted when he dove into the river to save a drowning old man. Countless people were rescued from their own dark places because of George Bailey’s selfless acts of love. As Hoyle states in her article, “It’s a role George didn’t ask for, a role he never wanted, and a role he could have walked away from at any time if he’d ever chosen to be “true to himself”, but he doesn’t. George Bailey gives everything he has for his community…and it seems to demand his very life.”
God’s purposes for us seem at times to demand our very lives. But that’s not a bad thing. On the surface, it seems like a silly way to live. I mean, seriously, who wants to give up their dreams and plans for others? Especially if we lay down our lives for those who might never repay the good we’ve done? Or turn on us? Or hurt us? Or ignore us? But then again, this is exactly what Jesus weighed on his way to the cross. Were we worth laying down his life? We already know the answer to that. It was and is a resounding yes. Jesus embraced his calling, because he embraced us. Once we give our lives to Jesus and embrace his purposes for our lives, we, too, will take up our crosses and find the surprising truth: there is certainly dying involved, but there’s also a whole lot of living. And with that “dying to self” imitation of Christ, there’s a whole lot of darkness in the world that is driven away. The question is whether or note will take up those crosses wherever we are and to whomever God brings along our paths.
I was looking for a great way to end this sermon, but I couldn’t find a better ending than the one Hoyle gives in her article. And so I share it with you: “Are we willing to be the George Baileys for our own communities?…Are we willing to stand at the bridge and give in tangible ways to our neighbors, our friends, and our enemies? To give whether they deserve it or not, and whether or not it benefits us? To set aside our ambitions and our dreams, to sometimes defer our own hope for the sake of the hope of others? Jesus kept no hope back for himself when he sweated blood in the garden of Gethsemane and gave himself over to be the hope of the world. It’s a We cannot pretend our lives touch no one. Intentionally or unintentionally, do we stand at the bridge? It’s not silly, it’s not cheap, and no angels will get wings when we choose the virtuous path—nor will anyone build statues to remember us by—but God can use one person at the bridge to turn back encroaching darkness.” And that’s what makes a life well-lived one that’s truly wonderful. Dying to self so that others can live. That’s the way of Christ. Let’s embrace it. Amen.