Sermon for February 10th, 2013

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Deuteronomy 6:1-9

1Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you. 4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Luke 6:20-26

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. ‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24 ‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 ‘Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. ‘Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Ephesians 2:1-10

1You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Les Miserables

There is no story in all of modern literary fiction that expresses the central message of the Gospel as powerfully and as directly as Les Miserables. All of the films we've been examining during this film series reflect the gospel and biblical themes to some extent. In the movie "Brave" it might not have been intentional. In the movie "Life of Pi" it might not have been very specific. In "Lincoln," the gospel message was subtle and complex. In Tolkien it was quite intentional, but still hidden and obscure. In Les Miserables, however, one would almost have to be blind and deaf NOT to hear the gospel message proclaimed boldly in almost every minute, every song, and every line. This makes it a fitting "Grand Finale" to our sermon series on Script and Scripture.

My custom for these past few sermons has been to give a three minute plot summary of the film before delving into its themes and scriptural connections. But for this film, the plot and the biblical/scriptural connections intertwined, and I'd like to keep them that way, so let's just jump right into the water and begin with all of them at once.

Act I

Look Down

That is precisely where the film begins. Under water. In the opening scene, we emerge from the water to find a chain gang of galley slaves pulling a large ship into dock in the middle of the storm. There is water everywhere. Think baptism. But this isn't the cute or pretty sort of baptism--one of the prisoners sings "Look down, look down, sweet Jesus hear my prayer" and another immediately responds, "Look down, look down, sweet Jesus doesn't care. This sets up one of the great questions of the film: Where is God's love to be found among the miserable ones, the wretched of the earth, the poor and downtrodden? The song continues "Look down, look down, you're standing in your grave, look down, look down, you'll always be a slave."

And just at this disheartening point, we see the first glimmer of hope--a prisoner who is about to be set free. He has served his time, but right before he is released, a police officer gives him one last command: to retrieve the broken flag of the ship the slaves have just hauled in. It is a flag attached to a giant beam of timber, and the prisoner, with great difficulty lifts it onto his shoulders, carrying the beam as Christ might have carried the cross up to Calvary. When the prisoner reaches the top of his climb, the rain stops and the sun comes out. {film clip #1}

These are the two main characters of the film: Jean Valjean, prisoner #24601, and Inspector Javert. Notice their interchange about the law. Javert speaks of "the meaning of the law." Valjean says, "I know the meaning of those 19 years, a slave to the law." This sets up the next great question of the film, which incidentally is a great question of the Bible, too: Is the law the final and ultimate standard of judgment, or is there something greater than the law?

The Bishop

Valjean climbs the stairs into the light of his new freedom, but it doesn't last long. As a marked ex-convict, he is unable to find work or food, he is denied shelter, and children hurl rocks at him. Finally he is taken in by a bishop, who says to him : Come in, Sir, for you are weary...what we have, we have to share. There is wine here to revive you. There is bread to make you strong, There's a bed to rest till morning, Rest from pain, and rest from wrong." I hope you noticed the reference to the bread and wine of communion, which nourishes not just our bodies, but our souls as well.

In the middle of the night, Valjean sneaks out and takes all the Bishop's silver with him. He is caught the next morning, but when his captors bring him back to the Bishop, the Bishop hands Valjean two silver candlesticks and says, "my friend you left so early, surely something slipped your mind. You forgot I gave these also, would you leave the best behind?" Then when the officials have left, he tells Valjean "by the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, God has raised you out of darkness, I have saved your soul for God." In some versions of the musical, the Bishop actually says "I have bought your soul for God."

And now, finally, we have the remaining piece of the puzzle: Mercy and grace. Sometimes this takes the form of a ransom, someone willingly paying the price for another's wrongdoing, or paying off another's debt. Sometimes it takes the form of substitution, or sacrifice for another person. It is always undeserved, and always motivated by genuine love and kindness. We will see it again and again.

Confronted with this undeserved act of mercy, Jean Valjean undergoes a spiritual transformation. He renounces his old life, and vows to begin a new one. And this is where the first of the film's three acts ends.

Act II

I Dreamed a Dream

The next act begins eight years later in the town of Montreuil. At the city gates, we are introduced to Les Miserables--the miserable ones, the poor, the wretched of the earth. People are covered in filth. Death, disease, and hunger are everywhere. One ray of hope in the town is its mayor--a well-respected businessman whose factories keep hundreds employed and off the streets. The mayor is none other than Jean Valjean, making good on his promise to live a new life for God.

And we are introduced to Fantine, a young woman who works in one of Valjean's factories. Fantine is a single mother who works to send money to a family who takes care of her daughter, Cosette. Through a series of tragic misunderstandings, Fantine loses her job, and is forced to sell first her possessions, then her hair, then her teeth, and then finally her very body in prostitution--all in order to keep paying for her Cosette's well-being. One of the prostitutes in the film has a great line: " Come now deary, what's all the fuss? You're no grander than the rest of us." This is true--Fantine's slow descent into ruin and shame is a reminder that we are all only a few tragedies away from shame and ruin. At the depth of her misery, Fantine sings what is probably the most iconic song of Les Miserables: "I Dreamed a Dream." {film clip #2}

There's a line in the song where Fantine says there is "no ransom to be paid." It is when she has run out of money, out of options, and almost out of life that Jean Valjean finds her and cares for her. Ultimately, Fantine still dies, but not before Jean Valjean has promised to find and take care of Cosette. Of course, this is when Javert shows up again.

Who Am I?

Javert has been suspicious for some time now that perhaps the Mayor is really prisoner #24601. But then he receives word that Jean Valjean has been captured in another city and is about to stand trial. The real Jean Valjean, the mayor, of course knows that this man who has been captured is innocent. But he also realizes that letting this man take the fall for him would ensure his freedom once and for all. This ethical dilemma is the subject of our next film clip {film clip #3}. Ultimately, Valjean reveals his true identity to spare the man who is falsely accused, and then Valjean runs away in order to keep his promise to Fantine and find Cosette.

Castle In the Clouds

When we first meet the child, Cosette, she is singing a song about a Castle in the Clouds: "I know a place where no one's lost. I know a place where no one cries. Crying at all is not allowed, not in my castle on a cloud." This of course reminds us of Revelation 21:4--"he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

The inkeeper and his wife who have been keeping Cosette are a notoriously crooked couple who mistreat her and are eager to part with her, for the right price. Valjean tells them "I will settle any debt you may think proper." He tells Cosette about her mother, and says "I will stand here in her place." As he rides away with Cosette asleep in his lap, he sings "Suddenly the world seems a different place, somehow full of grace, full of light." Valjean had been rescued, ransomed by the bishop, but it is only in ransoming, rescuing a child that he himself begins to understand unconditional love.


Valjean and Cosette flee to Paris with Inspector Javert hot on their trail, and they barely escape him, scaling the walls into the city. Here Javert sings his most famous song, "Stars." Listen to these words: "There out in the darkness, a fugitive running, fallen from God, fallen from grace. God be my witness, I never shall yield till we come face to face. He knows his way in the dark. Mine is the way of the Lord. Those who follow the path of the righteous shall have their reward. And if they fall as Lucifer fell, the flames, the sword!" He praises the stars for their unchanging order and light. "You know your place in the sky" he says of them. "And so it must be, for so it is written on the doorway to paradise that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price." For Javert, paradise is something you earn by keeping the law, by doing what is right. Those who don't must pay their own debts. Needless to say, Javert's opinion is as fixed and unflexible as the stars he admires. By now, we realize that Javert represents the law, the Old Testament, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Valjean, on the other hand, represents the New Testament: Grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. This is the end of Act II, and the great showdown between the Law and Love is set for the final Act.


Bring Him Home

Act III begins another eight years later, in the streets of Paris where Les Miserables, the poor, wretched ones are reprising the song "Look Down." "Look down, and show some mercy if you can; look down, look down, upon your fellow man." Among the crowd are several college students, young idealists who are eager to start a revolution. One of them is Marius Pontmercy, who catches a glimpse of a now grown-up and beautiful Cosette walking with her father. Marius falls in love at first sight, and later, the two meet and exchange promises.

Eventually there is a massive battle between the revolutionaries and the French army, and three significant things happen: First, Jean Valjean learns that Marius, the man his adopted daughter Cosette loves, will be fighting in the battle, so he goes secretly to watch over Marius and protect him. This is where Valjean sings the song, "Bring Him Home" that we will here as our offertory anthem today. I won't spoil it, but it is a beautiful song of self-sacrifice and substitution.

Second, Inspector Javert is captured by the revolutionaries, and ends up falling into the hands of Jean Valjean. Instead of killing Javert and ensuring his own freedom, Valjean shows mercy and lets the Inspector go. Third, the revolutionaries are brutally defeated, and all of them die except Marius, who is seriously wounded and left for dead. Valjean picks him up and drags him through the sewer system to safety. Just when he seems clear, he runs into Inspector Javert, and the tables are turned once again. Javert threatens Valjean with his pistol, but is somehow unable to pull the trigger and Valjean escapes with Marius in tow. Javert cannot comprehend what has happened, how a convict could show mercy, and how he himself could have wavered in his fixed view. Confronted with this undeserved act of mercy, Javert begins to undergo a spiritual transformation. The music is the same as the music played in Jean Valjean's conversion, and even some of the words are mirrored. Ultimately, Javert's worldview cannot accommodate the change, he cannot accept the love and grace he has been shown, and he throws himself off of a bridge. He lands on a fountain, breaking his body on hard, unforgiving stone.


Meanwhile, Jean Valjean nurses Marius back to health, and eventually gives his blessing to Marius and Cosette to marry each other. He is old now, and as he is dying he gives the couple a letter with his story, his last confession. He sees Fantine appear to take him home, and she tells him, "Monsieur I bless your name. Monsieur lay down your burden. You raised my child in love, and you will be with God. Come with me, where chains will never bind you. All your grief, at last, at last behind you. Lord in heaven look down on him in mercy." Valjean responds, "Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory." Then Jean Valjean's last words are joined together with Fantine and the Bishop, and I believe they represent not only the message of the entire story, but also the message of the entire Bible and all of Christianity in one brief statement. "And remember the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God."

Jesus himself told us to "love one another as I have loved you," and that "whatever you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do to me." All of the sacrifices and substitutions in Les Miserables, all of the ransoms and debts paid point us toward the one who loved us so much he paid the price for us, bought us with his blood, and stood in our place before the throne of God so that we might know forgiveness and grace and mercy and love that none of us deserves.

To love another person is to see the face of God. The law which condemns us is never the final word. Where is God's love to be found among the miserable ones, the wretched of the earth, the poor and downtrodden?

To love another person is to see the face of God. It is found in you and in me. May you see the face of God many times in the days and weeks and months to come.