In 1943 Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a short story called “The Greatest Gift”. Unable to find a publisher, he sent 200 copies he had printed, as a 21-page booklet, to friends as Christmas presents in December 1943.
A producer at RKO Film Studios was sent a copy of the story. In the end, the short book sold to RKO for $10,000 – that would be like $150,000 today!
The book would end up in the hands of Frank Capra, one of the most popular directors of his day. ‘The Greatest Gift’ went on to become the plot line for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. Frank Capra believed it would go on to become the greatest movie he ever directed. But when ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ premiered in December of 1946, it was a box office bust. It lost $525,000. While a few critics enjoyed it, the public ‘went to see’ another movie called ‘The Best Years of our Lives’. It overshadowed ‘It’s a Wonderful Life and took home ‘most of the Academy awards in 1947.
Also, the FBI wanted the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ banned and they called it subversive. They said it discredited bankers and made people with money look like mean and despicable people. They labeled it un-American and said it was part of a Communist plot to damage our Capitalist society. (seriously!)
Embarrassed by the response to the movie and damaged by all the money it lost, the studio shelved ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and it almost slipped off into obscurity. Due to a licensing restrictions lapse, the film found a second life. Major studio executives, who loved it as children, brought it back as a Christmas special in 1976 and since then, it has never gone off the air!
Also, since that time, the movie has become the most beloved holiday movie ever made. It is currently #11 on the American Film Institutes top 100 greatest movies of all time.
“It’s the darnedest ( not his exact word) thing I’ve ever seen”, Capra told The Wall Street Journal in 1984. “The film has a life of its own now…I’m like a parent, whose kid grows up to be president.” He said he wanted to make the film ‘to combat atheism’ which seemed to be taking over after the war. He also admitted it was always his favorite out of all the movies he directed.
I imagine almost everyone has seen it, so I will give just a short synopsis. It’s a Wonderful life is the story of George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. On Christmas Eve 1945, in Bedford Falls, New York, George Bailey contemplates suicide. Prayers for him reach heaven, where Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class, is assigned to help George. If he does, in return, he will earn his wings in heaven.
George Bailey is a good man who puts the needs of others before himself – but his life has taken an awful turn. A chain of events has taken place to make him believe that everyone would be better off if he was dead. As he stands on a bridge getting up the nerve to jump off, Clarence, the angel, jumps in the river and calls out for help. George jumps in to save him.
While they are drying off, George explains how badly his life is going and he has concluded, “Everyone would have been better if I was never born.”
Then Clarence decides to grant George’s wish and show him how the world would have looked, if George was never born. What he comes to find out is that,
– George’s brother, Harry, who George saved from drowning still dies and so do all the soldiers Harry would have saved in the war.
– The Pharmacist, Who George stopped from making a tragic mistake, still makes it and he became the town drunk. He lost everything.
– The town which George worked so hard to help – became an awful place to live.
– George’s Uncle Billy was eventually institutionalized.
– And Mary, George’s wife never married and ended up lonely and sad.
In the end, George begs for his life back and finally realizes that despite the tough times, he really has led ‘a wonderful life’. What makes the story so compelling, I think, is that it mirrors our lives and many of the people we read about in the Bible. There are good times and tough times – yet God is with us through it all.
Take the story of Mary, a young woman engaged to be married to a carpenter named Joseph. She grew up in a faithful family and she was raised with a strong faith. She was on the cusp of being married and raising a family. She was hopeful and humble.
To her, God sent his angel, Gabriel, to the town of Nazareth in Galilee. People in her day believed that if you saw an angel, it was often because God was sending you a warning. Some even believed that you could die from the shock of seeing one.
Scripture does not say that Gabriel appeared suddenly, but that he simply went to see her. As he approached her he said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.” It was unusual for strange men to talk to women in such a way and so Mary was perplexed by his words and wondered just what he wanted.
Then Gabriel said, “Do not be frightened Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have never been with a man?”
The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born of you ‘will be holy’; he will be called ‘Son of God’. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her – who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Then Mary said, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Did Mary believe this had been an angel or more likely a prophet? We don’t know.
Yet she believed and it is credited to her that she had an amazing faith. But how was she to explain this to Joseph?
Mary made some excuse to go and visit her cousin Elizabeth ‘in a town in the Judean hills’ and she left quickly. Mary stayed with her about 3 months until Elizabeth’s child was to be born. (Luke 1:39-40, 56) It is likely, that when she headed back home she knew she had to tell Joseph.
Matthew’s Gospel of course tells us how he responded; he was clearly hurt and upset. And then, how God sent an angel to Joseph in a dream to explain things. (Matthew 1:18-25)
But imagine, for a second, how Mary must have felt about all this. This stranger, the angel Gabriel, had told Mary that she had found favor in God’s eyes. And then, her life was turned upside down! What kind of blessing would this be?
Then, after the birth of Jesus, in an animal shelter, they were warned by God, in a dream to flee for their lives to Egypt. Imagine how hard that had to be for Mary and Joseph, traveling with a small child. (Matthew 2:13-15)
Later, when they took their son to be presented at the Temple, the priest, Simeon said to Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign ‘that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed’. And a sword will pierce your own soul also.” (Luke 2:21,34-35)
All of these things were to be ‘made true’ when Jesus was arrested and placed on a cross. Mary stood at the foot of it weeping and being comforted by the apostle John. (John 19:26-27)
I cannot think of a worse fate, than a mother watching her son die on a cross as he was being crucified. After seeing a soldier pierce Jesus’ side, I imagine she felt like a sword had also pierced her own soul too. Like George Bailey, I imagine she wanted to die there and then. How much can one person take?
The Bible holds nothing back. We see the highs and the lows. There is joy and there is suffering. We do not have answers but we must keep our eyes on the Lord. He is always with us. That is what Immanuel means “God with us” through the triumph and pain. He knows what we cannot see.
Like me, I am sure you have also ridden the wild roller coaster of life. There were times I wondered why I was born. I wondered if the world was better off without me. I wondered if anyone would miss me when I was gone. And I wondered why God was allowing me to endure suffering.
King Solomon was the wisest man to ever live. In Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 he wrote,
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
Later in Ecclesiastes chapter 7:14 he writes, “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one – as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.”
In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” George Bailey had a gift that he wasn’t sure he wanted. His gift was the gift of life. That was “The Greatest Gift”. It took awhile for him to realize what a gift it really was. But you may have noticed, his heart and mind changed before everyone came to his rescue.
After the resurrection of Jesus, I imagine Mary had a very different feeling about her life. Everything came full circle. You see, the Christmas story is our story. Jesus came to love us, to help us and to be with us in the darkest parts of our life and through him we are given a way of light and hope through any storm.
So if you are experiencing the darkness of despair today, God not only wants you to know that He has made a way for you to make it through but that he wants you to know that in your darkest moments, He is with you always. He sees what we cannot see and there is more than meets the eye.
The Christmas story reminds us that all life matters. We have purpose. Our life matters so much to God that he came down in the person of Jesus. We hear this in John 3:16 which says… ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’
The darkness will not last, the dawn is coming and Jesus is the son, the bearer of light and love. Always look at the big picture, don’t get lost in the moments – but like Mary, keep holding on to your faith. It is easy to focus on all the things that go wrong – but never forget all the things that went right. We may not always get the life we want – but don’t forget to see the miracles and be glad. Because, you see, in the end, it really is a wonderful life.
Your assignment is…to watch the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ again with fresh eyes. Watch for the people praying. Listen for the truth ‘that life is worth living’. Finally, re-read Mary’s story in Luke. There are many similarities. Then be prepared to hear the Word of God this season, to witness again the birth in Bethlehem, and to rejoice in the celebration of Christ our King. All praise to Jesus,