Sermon: “Good News to the Oppressed” (December 14, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News to the Oppressed” (Isaiah 61:1-2a)
December 14, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In today’s moving Old Testament lesson the prophet Isaiah, prophesying about the future coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, writes some of the most life-giving and comforting words in all of Scripture:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2a).

“Good news to the oppressed”…ironically enough it is during the holiday season that people often feel the most oppressed—externally oppressed by end of the year work stress or financial pressure or obligatory holiday gatherings with people who drive them crazy—or internally oppressed by depression or grief or anxiety. There are many factors and circumstances that can cause people to feel oppressed this time of year.

In this sermon I am preaching about this “good news to the oppressed” through the lens of just one film, a film that has become a holiday classic, a film that I trust most if not all of you have seen, perhaps multiples times—the iconic 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

It’s a Wonderful Life is my all-time favorite film because it is soaked, absolutely drenched, with the gospel. I had seen bits and pieces of the film while growing up, but it was while I was in the hospital rocking my newborn daughter Cate that I watched it all the way through for the first time on the small TV mounted in the hospital room. Since then I have watched it every year in December, and every time I watch it I appreciate it even more.

It is Christmas Eve in Bedford Falls, New York and George Bailey—played brilliantly by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart—is feeling overwhelmingly oppressed. The film opens with George’s family and friends praying for him: “Help him, Dear Father,” “Help my friend, Mr. Bailey,” “Help my son George tonight,” “George is a good guy, give him a break, God,” “I love him, dear Lord, watch over him tonight,” “Please God, something’s the matter with Daddy,” “Please bring Daddy home.”

All these prayers ascend to heaven and are heard. An angel named Clarence is assigned to help George. “Is he sick?” Clarence asks the other angels. “No, worse,” one replies, “He’s discouraged.”

Clarence is given a glimpse of George’s life. As a boy George saves his younger brother Harry from drowning in icy water, and lost his hearing in one ear as a result. Soon after that George covers for Mr. Gower, who owns the drug store and soda fountain in which he works.

Mr. Gower has just received a telegram informing him that his son had died, and is grieving and drinking in the back room. He unknowingly fills a prescription with poison and sends George to deliver it. George realizes that it is poison and never delivers it. Later Mr. Gower rips into George for not delivering the prescription. He begins slapping George in the head, causing his hurt ear to bleed.

“Mr. Gower, you don’t know what you’re doing,” George cries, “You put something wrong in those capsules. You got the telegram and you’re upset…It wasn’t your fault, Mr. Gower… It’s poison.”

Mr. Gower is stunned, and realizing what has happened, he hugs George and begins apologizing profusely. Do you know what George says then? “Oh Mr. Gower, I won’t tell anyone, I know what you’re feeling, I won’t tell a soul.” And George never does.

George is ambitious, and as a young man he is talking about his future plans with his father, who runs a struggling building and loan company. “I suppose you’ve decided what you want to do when you get out of college,” his father says. “Oh you know, what I’ve always talked about” George gushes, “Build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities.”

“Of course it’s just a hope,” his father replies, “but you wouldn’t consider coming back to the Building and Loan would you?” George shakes his head, “Now Pop, I couldn’t. I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office.” But shortly thereafter his father dies and George takes over.

While his brother goes off to college and then becomes a war hero, George remains in Bedford Falls and gets married. He struggles in his “shabby little office” to keep the building and loan afloat, even using his honeymoon money at one point.

Several years pass, several children are born, and then one Christmas Eve Uncle Billy, who works with George, goes to make a deposit at the bank, eight thousand dollars. While gloatingly showing a newspaper story about the heroic exploits of Harry to the evil Mr. Potter, a wealthy but bitter man, Uncle Billy accidentally leaves the money in the newspaper, which he gives to Mr. Potter.

George, after a frantic search for the money, crawls to none other than Mr. Potter, who of course never returned the money he found in the newspaper. “I’m in trouble, Mr. Potter. I need help. Through some sort of an accident my company’s short in their accounts… I’ve got to raise eight thousand dollars immediately… Please help me, Mr. Potter…Can’t you see what it means to my family?”

George takes full responsibility on himself. “I’ve just misplaced eight thousand dollars and I can’t find it anywhere.” “You misplaced eight thousand dollars?” Mr. Potter asks. “Yes sir,” George replies. George never mentions that it was Uncle Billy who lost the money. George took the blame for Uncle Billy’s mistake.

Mr. Potter asks George if he has any collateral. The only thing George has is $500 of equity on his life insurance policy. Mr. Potter glares at him. “Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world.” And then Mr. Potter drops the big one: “You’re worth more dead than alive.” He picks up the phone and calls the police to secure a warrant for George’s arrest.

George heads home, and after taking out his anger on his family, goes to a bar. As he fumbles with the life insurance policy in his coat pocket, he utters one of the most honest prayers you will ever hear: “O God, O God, dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, O God.”

Enter Clarence the angel. Just as George is about to jump off a bridge into a river, Clarence himself jumps in the river. George rescues Clarence, and George, pouring out his stress to Clarence, tells him, “I wish I had never been born.” Clarence then gives George a glimpse of what Bedford Falls, and all those in it whose lives he had impacted, would have been like if he had never been born.

George finds himself at a cemetery, at the grave of his younger brother Harry. George wipes the snow from Harry’s tombstone with a puzzled look on his face. Clarence informs him, “Your brother Harry Bailey broke through the ice, and was drowned at the age of nine.” “That’s a lie!” George replies, “Harry Bailey went to war. He got the Congressional Medal of Honor. He saved the lives of every man on that transport!”

“Every man on that transport died,” Clarence says, “Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry… You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”

Toward the end of the film George returns to the bridge and prays another gut-level honest prayer, “I want to live again. I want to live again. I want to live again. Please God, let me live again.”

And God answered George’s prayer; he got to live again.

And you probably remember what happens next. George returns to his family, and lavishes them with hugs and kisses. Soon their home is inundated with guests who all bring money and jewels, anything they can find, and pile it all in a huge basket, well over eight thousand dollars’ worth. The warrant for George’s arrest is torn in pieces, his brother Harry returns home, Clarence gets his angel wings, and everyone is singing.

But there is someone who does not join the party: Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter never changes. But it does not matter, because the love of George’s family and friends more than make up for it.

It’s a Wonderful Life shows us what “good news to the oppressed” looks like—and it echoes the real life good news of the gospel.

About seven hundred years after Isaiah prophesied about the Messiah who would bring “good news to the oppressed,” Jesus stood up in a synagogue and read the same words Isaiah wrote about bringing good news to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19), and then Jesus sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Isaiah’s prophesy was fulfilled in Jesus, who indeed preached good news to the oppressed.

What about you today? Can you relate at all to George Bailey? Are you in some way oppressed, discouraged, or at the end of your rope? Are you in trouble and need help?

Jesus Christ jumped into the river of the human experience, and in his passion and death was himself oppressed, discouraged and at the end of his rope—so much so that in the Garden of Gethsemane he literally sweated drops of blood, and on the cross he cried in dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And yet Jesus’ death on the cross is the heart of the “good news to the oppressed.”

For in the same way George took the blame for Uncle Billy’s losing the money on himself, Jesus took the blame for us.

And in the same way George bled at the hands of Mr. Gower, covered for him, and never told a soul—Jesus bled at the hands of sinners, covered our sins, and prayed, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, KJV).

And in the same way George saved his younger brother Harry from drowning, Jesus saved us from ourselves—and gave us all the opportunity to live again.

This means that in spite of the unchanging Mr. Potter-like factors or circumstances that cause you to feel oppressed, ultimately the love of God in Jesus Christ more than makes up for it.

And like George Bailey, you will return home and find that your arrest warrant has been torn to pieces—and that you are surrounded by multitudes of forgiven sinners just like you, and multitudes of angels just like Clarence—and you will join them in singing.

Amen.