(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
Joy: It’s a Wonderful Life
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
George Bailey contrasted his father’s life and “wealth” with Mr. Potter’s, saying, “Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!” Potter was wealthy, but he attained his wealth at the expense of others. George’s father and George lived lives full of ups and downs, helping and serving others. When we view life in the light of eternity, George was right. Ecclesiastes said thousands of years ago that God has “placed eternity” in human hearts, that God means for us to live in the light of eternity.
Jesus spoke these words to both a man who apparently wanted even more than he already had (cf. Luke 12:13) and to his disciples (cf. Luke 12:21), who were not among Israel’s wealthier citizens. He urged both rich and poor to worry less about earthly wealth, but to give priority to “treasure in heaven.” It’s a Wonderful Life posed, on film, the question: are Jesus’ words naïve nonsense or eternal truth?
Proverbs 14:31, 31:8-9, Psalm 82:1-4
Israel’s wisdom urged everyone to speak up for the voiceless, to care for those who couldn’t care for themselves. Many people echo Mr. Potter’s profit-driven contempt for the poor. At one point, he referred to Ernie Bishop, a Building and Loan client, as “that fellow that sits around all day on his brains in his taxi.” Scripture’s call was not to ridicule such people, but to treat them with dignity, generosity and compassion.
Acts 5:17–20; 12:1–11; 27:21-26
In It’s a Wonderful Life, we (and George Bailey) meet a charming, unusual character: “Clarence Odbody, Angel second class.” Clarence gets a very serious task: to help George see his life’s value clearly, so that he doesn’t give up. What’s interesting is that, without the theatrical touches, things like that really happen. Acts records at least three key times when divine messengers freed or saved an apostle facing prison or death.
Jesus said he came “so that they could live life to the fullest.” Sometimes we picture a life lived according to God’s principles as dreary, dutiful, devoid of joy. That’s how it began to seem to George Bailey, until Clarence showed him what his town would be like if he had never lived. In Clarence’s words, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives….You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life”—the kind of “life to the fullest” Jesus promised.
Israel faced dark times of defeat and exile. Isaiah warned them of that—but also told them the darkness was not the end of the story: “On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.” The light dawned at the world-changing event we remember at Christmas: “A child is born to us, a son is given to us.” That light dawned for George Bailey. He embraced his new sense of his life’s value, and cried joyfully, “Hello, Bedford Falls! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan! Hey! Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!”
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
Lord Jesus, we thank you for engraving your instructions on our hearts and look forward to ways you will continue to mold us. Enable us to live more and more in your goodness, your grace. Grow your generous spirit within us and in us an ever bigger heart, filled with gratitude for your many blessings. Amen.
CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)
Do you love all the Christmas music or does it bother you? When do you tend to enjoy the music the most and when does it tend to bother you?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
Read Ecclesiastes 3:1-11. This well-known passage begins “There’s a season for everything.” Do you think that means all of the things listed (e.g. dying, mourning, killing) are things God wanted, or just that all these things occur in the course of life in this broken world? When verse 11 said that God “has also placed eternity in their hearts,” did that point to our inner yearning for a better order of life in God’s eternal kingdom? What are some of the mysteries that cause you to agree with Ecclesiastes that God has not enabled us “to discover what God has done from beginning to end”? Does your faith in eternity lead you to trust in the face of those mysteries, or do they challenge and even disturb your faith?
Read Luke 12:23-34. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey cried, “You sit around here and spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money! Well, it doesn’t, Mr. Potter!” To what extent do you agree with Jesus and George Bailey that, in fact, the whole world does not revolve around money? When you need to deal with paying bills, does that make it easier or harder for you to agree with that perspective? What do you hold in your heart as the main measures of how significant your life is?
Read Proverbs 14:31, 31:8-9, Psalm 82:1-4. Do you agree with these Bible passages, or do you think they are out of date or unrealistic? When was the last time you had a chance to speak up for a person (or group of people) who is poor, powerless or looked down on by others? What did you do in that situation? What do you as a group know about the idea of “microfinance”? Resurrection’s Missions ministry is taking the lead in facilitating microfinance opportunities, starting with people in Malawi and Mexico. Go to http://www.umcmicrofinance.org, and consider as a group joining together to make one or more microloans that you can track together.
Read Acts 5:17–20; 12:1–11; 27:21-26. Would you say you are a big believer in angels, a bit of a skeptic about claims of having met or heard from an angel, or somewhere in between? Have you ever heard someone claim that an angel acted in a way that doesn’t fit with angels being God’s messengers, doing what God wanted them to do? When has an angel, human or otherwise, turned your life from going down into darkness and toward God’s light?
Read John 10:7-15. Jesus contrasted his role as the good Shepherd with influences he called “the thief.” What are some of the ideas or people who have influenced you in ways that, in the long run, robbed you of life rather than enriching it? When has following Jesus brought you experiences that have made you feel deeply, fully alive? How can you as a group encourage and support each other in finding the fullness of life Jesus promised?
Read Isaiah 9:2-7. In what ways can you relate your walk with Christ to Isaiah’s words: “On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned”? What are the things, large or small, that can make life seem dark to you? In what ways can you tap into the presence and power of Christ to bring light back into your life at those times?
From last week: Were you able to find one way you’ll honor Christmas differently, to better live out Paul’s counsel that “it works out best to defeat evil with good”? Share with the group what it was like to wrestle with the question, and any answers you found.
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, December 15, 2013:
The main plot of It’s a Wonderful Life takes place on a Christmas Eve. George Bailey’s Uncle Billy misplaces a major deposit of the Building and Loan’s money–$8,000, about $100,000 in today’s dollars. This is enough to sink the Building and Loan. George will lose everything if he can’t come up with the money. He does everything he can think of with no success. It feels like his world is crashing in. He realizes that he is worth more dead than alive due to his life insurance. Desperate, George goes to a bridge and prepares to jump into the river.
This situation strikes close to home for so many. This week the 36-year-old son of a friend of mine in Florida took his own life. In the last year I’ve preached the funerals of three people I cared deeply about who took their own lives. A couple of weeks ago, one night, I was having conversations with two people on Facebook who were wrestling with suicidal thoughts. Some of you know my grandmother took her life before I was born. George Bailey was a remarkably good man, but the situation he was in felt so hopeless, and his drive to fix the problem leads him to a very bad solution. His perspective is skewed, and what he needs is a change of perspective. He can’t see the pain he’s about to inflict upon his children. He doesn’t realize that his life insurance will not pay in the event of suicide. And he can’t see that there is always another, better way out.
Even in the Bible we find people so discouraged they want to die. Moses prayed to God to die when he was in the wilderness. So did Elijah. David’s Psalms make clear that he was often walking in dark places where the whole world seemed against him. And the writer of Lamentations describes the overwhelming sorrow he’s walking through. We’ll all be the discouraged George Bailey at some time in our lives….
At the bridge, as George contemplates jumping, we meet Clarence. Clarence is an angel who is trying to earn his wings. He’s been sent by God to help George on this Christmas Eve night….Recently I read each scripture in the Bible that mentions angels. As I’ve mentioned before, in the Bible angels are not winged creatures. The Hebrew and Greek words for angel both mean “messenger.” In the Bible angels are sent to bring messages, sometimes messages of encouragement, sometimes messages of good news of some great thing God is doing. They appear as humans, which is why the writer of Hebrews tells us: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
Angels in scripture appear when someone is low or discouraged to bring encouragement. Remember that an angel of the Lord came to Hagar in the wilderness, and to Elijah as well in our last sermon series. In Acts an angel came to release the apostles from prison and stood with Paul when he was struggling. Angels were with Jesus when he was tempted in the wilderness, and being tested in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But angels also come announcing good news, usually something astounding, unbelievable and essential to God’s plans. Angels announce to both Mary and Joseph that Mary will bear the Christ-child. They announce the birth of the Savior to the shepherds on Christmas night. They are also present at Christ’s tomb following the Resurrection announcing, “He is not here he is risen!”…
George continues to think the world would be better off without him. Clarence decides to give George his wish, and shows him what would have happened if George had never been born. He takes George into town. Bedford Falls is now called Pottersville after the town slumlord, described as “the richest, meanest man in town.” Since George had never lived, he had not kept the Building and Loan open when his father died, and without the Building and Loan, Potter came to control the town and its people.
Next, Clarence takes George to see the people he knew well and whom he had touched. Without George and the everyday things he did, the druggist George helped as a boy became the town drunkard. The aspiring actress became a stripper. George’s wife never married. Their children were never born….At this point, Clarence utters the line that gave the film its title, saying, “You see George, you really had a wonderful life.” Despite his immediate circumstances, George had a wonderful life. He was not a man of wealth and power, but his life had made a difference. He had saved his little brother, who went on to save an entire ship of men. He had made loans to people building their homes and escaping the slums. He had married a wonderful woman and they had a family together. He came to see, and to trust, that his life had played some part in so many other lives….
The biblical story is a story of hope in the face of adversity, and light that dawns in the midst of our darkness. It is the story of God who promises never to leave us nor forsake us, and who works in surprising ways to see us through. You can’t see right now what God will do in the future. We trust that God will deliver us, and bring light into our darkness, and that we play some part in his plans, and we keep going.
Which leads me back to George’s story. George comes to have a changed perspective. It is the only thing we have—that changed perspective we also call hope. It is believing that things will turn out differently than they presently are….
I love the closing scene of It’s A Wonderful Life. When the town heard that George was in trouble, that without $8,000 the Building and Loan would close, and he’d go to jail, God delivered him through his friends and neighbors, who pitched in money and rallied to his support. The scene illustrates so well the idea that we are God’s angels, and that it is through people that God usually works to sustain and deliver us in our darkest hour. We hear words calling us to be God’s angels throughout the scriptures, words like those of Paul in Galatians: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
George really was the richest man in town, saved by the angels on that Christmas Eve night. Trust God in your hour of darkness. There are no hopeless causes with God.
About It’s A Wonderful Life
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), originally made for Liberty Films, is one of the most popular and heartwarming films ever made by director Frank Capra. Frank Capra regarded this film as his own personal favorite – it was also James Stewart’s favorite of all his feature films.
It was actually a box-office flop at the time of its release, and only became the Christmas movie classic in the 1970s due to repeated television showings at Christmas-time when its copyright protection slipped and it fell into the public domain in 1974 and TV stations could air it for free. [Republic Pictures restored its copyright claim to the film in 1993, with exclusive video rights to it. Currently, it can be shown only on the NBC-TV network, and its distribution rights belong to Paramount Pictures.]
The film’s screenplay (credited as being written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra himself, with additional scenes by Jo Swerling) was based on “The Greatest Gift,” an original short story first written on a Christmas card by Philip Van Doren Stern. Uncredited for their work on the script were Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, and Clifford Odets.
It is actually a dark, bittersweet post-war tale of a savings-and-loan manager who struggles against a greedy banker and his own self-doubting nature in a small town. Earnest do-gooder George Bailey (James Stewart) recognizes his life as wonderful and truly rich, even in its humdrum and bleak nature, only after suffering many hardships, mishaps and fateful trials (including compromised dreams of youth to leave the town and seek fame and fortune, other sacrifices, dismay, losses and the threat of financial ruin, and suicide). He is given encouragement by a whimsical, endearing, trainee-angel named Clarence (Henry Travers).
The story turns Dickensian (similar to A Christmas Carol, although told from Bob Cratchit’s point-of-view rather than from Scrooge’s) when the hysterical, despairing, and melancholy family man is shown what the small town (Bedford Falls, now renamed Pottersville after the town’s evil tycoon) would be like without him. It’s a frightening, nightmarish, noirish view of the world (at Christmas-time) that brings him back from self-destruction. He returns to the idyllic, small-town world that he left, with renewed faith and confidence in life itself. Hence, the film’s title: It’s a Wonderful Life.
This week identify as many things as possible that have made your life wonderful. Plan to share your lists the next time your group meets, and also with family and friends as part of your Christmas celebration.