In the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) yearns for something better. But, beginning with his father’s untimely death, circumstances beyond George’s control thwart each of his plans to escape the runty town of his birth. George doles out his life helping small people live their small-town dreams. All the while, he believes he is missing something. He longs for something more, something exotic and adventurous, and audiences all over the world have identified with his longings for more than sixty years.
Lesser-known films tap into similar yearnings. In Family Man a bachelor is living the classic American “good life.” He’s wealthy, sexually active, powerful, and respected. He lives in an elite Manhattan skyscraper, drives a head-turning car, and enjoys acclaim from his peers. He has everything—everything except a small-town life with his high school sweetheart, a life that he imagines may be better. So it goes, film after film exposing our desires.
Commercials tap into these same longings with brain-surgeon precision. Advertisers identify and accent our cravings. In a world of broken families and unmet emotional needs, they create alluring images of a perfect family celebrating impeccable Christmas gifts. In a world of rusted Ford Pintos, advertisers paint a picture of a rugged, handsome man driving a well-equipped SUV. In a world of the twin abuses of child neglect and child worship, they show a delighted toddler relishing his newly purchased toy.
Marketers display the perfect life and invite us to purchase their product to experience it. John Updike calls commercials “the aesthetic marvels of our age,” presenting “glowing images of useful beauty and athletic prowess, of racial harmony and exalted fellowship” designed “to persuade us that a certain beer or candy bar, or insurance company or oil-based conglomerate is, like the crucified Christ or the deified Lenin at other times and places, the gateway to the good life” (Quentin Schultze, Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media, © 2000, Baker Academic, p. 129).
Each advertising or movie image, no matter how soaring, beautiful, or creative, takes its cue from another, ancient image. The original is wilder and deeper, far more seductive and compelling than the images the best advertisers produce. Their work is a tiny peek at God’s own image of universal harmony. Aesthetic-pushing ads leak the gospel truth: that every human heart yearns for what only God can supply.
Centuries of Christian thinkers have known that such longing comes as standard equipment in each human being. Augustine called it life’s summum bonum or “supreme good.” John Calvin said that God plants in every human a sensus divinitatus—a “sense of divinity.” C.S. Lewis wrote, “Our inconsolable secret is that we are full of yearnings, sometimes shy and sometimes passionate, that point us beyond the things of earth to the ultimate reality of God.” In every age and in every place, church insiders, novices, and dodgers know they are created for something better than they currently experience.
Advent is a time of reflection and repentance. It’s a season in which we grieve life’s brokenness. And it’s a time to consider our longings. We turn our hearts and hopes toward something better.
Preachers often condemn advertisers for their omnipresent and effective seasonal jingles. But might we be wise to see them as allies? Might commercials be aids that point to the good life God promises to provide through the incarnation? Sure, ads can lead to a form of consumer idolatry, but might they also identify our innate and universal desire for shalom? Aren’t we supposed to feel such longing?
Ancient biblical poets and prophets stir similar images. Micah envisions, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Micah 4:2). Isaiah imagines, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat” (Isa. 11:6). Jesus begins his preaching ministry by evoking the much-anticipated “year of the Lord’s favor” where there is freedom and healing.
Shalom is a wonder we all long for, and advertisers may point toward it unaware. But preachers know the true source of shalom and are wise to aim their preaching toward God’s grand redemptive vision.
Dazzled by the creativity of advertisers and media production teams, preachers may feel intimidated. We lack million-dollar budgets. Professional speechwriters do not wordsmith our messages. A technical team doesn’t match our sermons to stirring music. But we do know the true way to satisfy the heart’s yearning. And especially during Advent, our calling is to point people in that direction. We follow Irenaeus, who said,
. . . the days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs and in each true twig ten thousand shoots and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine. And when any of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, “I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.”
─Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Christian Literature, 1885), p. 563.
And we follow Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream.” Delivered in the heat of the 1960s civil rights conflict, it was part speech and part sermon. But it was all about a vision of a better life. King knew where his speech was going. He understood its purpose. He was guiding, preaching, urging his listeners toward shalom. No one would blame him that day if, in the time of spite and violence, he pled for justice. But he directed his listeners beyond justice, to the fruit of justice: shalom.
No sermon, even one from Irenaeus or King, can embody every part of shalom; the biblical panorama is too vast. So a preacher’s task each week is to awaken and identify one specific part of God’s sweeping cosmic vision. Each week’s sermon highlights one part of God’s extensive restoration project. Focusing on shalom enables a preacher to communicate the wonder of God’s great mission and tie every aspect together.
Imagine that sermon after sermon, during Advent and beyond, highlights an aspect of shalom. Each connects a specific human longing to God’s massive project of renewal and harmony. Focused on shalom, a year of sermons doesn’t scatter in congregants’ minds like disconnected fragments. Instead, like fifty-two puzzle pieces, they gradually build one united, ever-growing picture. Single sermons marry into a united whole. Every sermon, and every year of sermons, contributes to the one vision (shalom) and the one way to obtain it (gospel grace). Shalom-targeted preaching motivates, inspires, and urges listeners to begin to live that Advent picture now.
Advent reminds us what commercials and films cannot: that true biblical shalom is far wider and bigger than the happiness of one person. And it reminds us of the beauty of the incarnation: we do not purchase or earn or deserve shalom. We receive it. That is very good news.