Do you have a favourite Christmas film? It may be a version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, of course), or Irvin Berlin’s White Christmas (starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, or The Sound of Music (which is not strictly speaking a Christmas film but is on TV every Christmas nevertheless), or … well 101 other possibilities … there are so many to choose from!?
My favourite Christmas film is It’s a Wonderful Life (considered by many to be the best film ever made). It is the story of George Bailey (played by James Stewart in the film), a man who has spent his entire life giving of himself to the people of Bedford Falls. He has always longed to travel but never taken the opportunity in order to prevent rich skinflint Mr. Potter from taking over the entire town. All that prevents Potter from doing so is George’s modest building and loan company, which was founded by his generous father. But on Christmas Eve, George’s Uncle Billy loses a substantial amount of the business’s assets while intending to deposit it in the bank. Potter finds the misplaced money and hides it from Billy. When the bank examiner discovers the shortage later that night, George realizes that he will be held responsible and sent to jail and the company will collapse, finally allowing Potter to take over the town. Thinking that his wife, their young children, and others he loves will be better off with him dead, he contemplates suicide. But the prayers of his loved ones result in a gentle angel named Clarence coming to earth to help George (with the promise of earning his wings). He shows George what things would have been like if he had never been born. The whole story turns on a moment when George (contemplating suicide by jumping off the town bridge) – realises that God had a plan and purpose for his life after all – prays: ‘I want to live again! I want to live again! I want to live again! Please God, let me live again!’
What has all this to do with the Christmas Story, you may well ask? Well, at Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. This particular birth, however, was not simply the gift of yet another new life born into our world but the gift of someone very special – the birth of God’s ‘one and only Son’ (John 3:16). At his birth the angelic messenger announced that this special child would have two particular names – “Immanuel (meaning ‘God with us’)” and “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21,23). There is a famous Renaissance painting by Lorenzo Lotto called The Nativity which shows Jesus in a manger with a shadow of a cross over it. We must recognise that Jesus came in order to die on the cross in order to atone for the sins of humanity and open up a new and living way back to God for sinful people like us. We must move beyond the concept of Jesus as a baby and see the Passion as well as the Incarnation (John 3:16,17).
Moreover, this remarkable gift of God in Jesus – to the manger and the cross – made it possible for all who will turn to God in Christ to experience what the Bible calls ‘eternal life’ or ‘abundant life’ (John 10:10). The most famous verses in the Bible tell us that ‘God so loved the world, he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16,17). What is more, this eternal or abundant life that is available to us in and through Jesus, is (as someone once put it) ‘a lived for others life’. When the Apostle Peter reflected on what he was most grateful to God for saving him from in Christ, he did not say ‘the power of Satan or sin or death’ (although all that was also true) but rather, ‘an empty or wasted way of life’ (1 Peter 1:18). New life in Christ not only satisfies us, but enables us to make a real contribution in this broken and hurting world in which we live.
I spoke at a wedding a little while ago, and after the Service a young man in his mid-30s came to me and asked me a question: ‘Did you say that in order to truly find God for myself … to find God’s plan and purpose for my life … I need to genuinely commit myself to Jesus Christ?’ I confess I was somewhat hesitant in my response … I didn’t want to put off someone who was genuinely seeking God … but in the end I confessed. ‘Yes!’ I said, ‘that’s exactly what I said … if you want to find God for yourself, if you want to get into the centre-stream of God’s plan and purpose for your life … you need to lay your all on the altar for Jesus!’ There was a moment of hesitation … and then this young man said, ‘Good! That’s what I have been looking for!’ He then told me his story. Apparently, although brought up in a Christian home, he had rejected the Christian message in his late teens, determined to make his own way in life. ‘I had a plan, he told me, ‘I determined to go to university, get a good degree, get a good job, earn a lot of money, find a nice girl and get married, have two children, buy a nice house … set myself up for the rest of my life!’ ‘And’ I said, sensing that there was more to come. ‘And’ he said, ‘I have done all of that … I have achieved everything I set out to achieve, and there is still something missing … and I didn’t know what it was until today!’
J B Phillips suggests that ‘There is a God-shaped space in our lives which only God himself can fill!’ There is a well-know prayer of Saint Augustine which says: ‘You have made us for yourself O God, and the soul finds no rest until it finds its rest in you!’ The great thing about the Christmas Story is that, in the birth of Jesus Christ, George Bailey (and all the George Bailey’s of this world’ can find life – eternal and abundant life, life with a purpose, life with a capital ‘L’ (as the late Lindsay Glegg used to say)! So, this Christmas, choose life, choose Jesus!