We began our Lenten journey on Sunday with the iconic Les Misérables  as our conversation partner. Victor Hugo’s 175-year-old masterpiece, a novel-turned-musical-turned movie has been released for film and television and stage 69 times in the past 122 years. We encountered Jean Valjean in worship, one of two main characters. Jean Valjean is a hardened prisoner with a soul full of anger when we first meet him. Jean Valjean stole bread for his starving niece, and for it was sentenced to five years in prison. Failed escape attempts got him 19 years total before his release. Injustice, societal indifference to suffering and harsh prison conditions have left him a broken shell of the person he was created to be.

Where is Grace? Or Mercy? Is there to be Salvation? Those little word, grace and mercy remind us that we need others; we need God; we need the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the end, our salvation must come from the outside. Salvation is a gift, a gift of free mercy. I think this universal human truth is the reason the story of Les Misérables  has endured in its many forms. It is not simply the story of one man in France during the lead up to the French Revolution; it is our story. 

Surrounding the romance and revolution in the middle,  Les Misérables  is really a story of profound theological contrast, a contrast in how two sinners (Valjean and his nemesis, Javert) respond to the offer of mercy At a profound level, this is the story of two responses to grace: one man is broken and lives, and one man is hardened and dies.

It places before us all two questions: How do you respond to the gift of mercy and how freely do you extend grace to others?

At his release from prison, Jean Valjean finds himself in a tortuous and unending darkness of unforgiveness. Hugo writes, “At intervals there would suddenly come to him, from within or from without, a gust of rage, an added burst of suffering, a pale and rapid flash of lightening that would illuminate his entire world and would suddenly reveal all around him, before and behind, in the glare of a ghastly light, the awful sheer drops and grim overhangs of his fate.”

Jean Valjean attempts to reintegrate with society, but the ex-prisoner finds rejection at every turn. At last he turns to the charity of a local bishop, Bishop Myriel, a kind and self-sacrificing man that takes him in for the night. That night Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver, is soon caught by local police and brought back to the church. The Bishop tells the police that the silver was his gift to Jean Valjean, thus sparing Valjean from a return to prison.
In the musical adaptation the Bishop later sings to Valjean, “By the passion and the blood, God has raised you out of darkness.”  And such mercy spares Jean Valjean from returning to prison, but it is a mercy that forces a crisis in Valjean’s life.

Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!
One word from him [the Bishop] and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack.
Instead he offers me my freedom!
I feel my shame inside me like a knife.
He told me that I have a soul...
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in...
As I stare into the void —
To the whirlpool of my sin.

In the light of mercy, Jean Valjean is thrown into recognition of his sinfulness, and he is broken open. His life is forever changed and he is himself transformed into a a man of mercy.
Conversely, Javert is the legalist who adheres strictly to the letter of the law. He serves in Valjean’s story as both a prison guard and the police officer who is always watching Jean Valjean with a keen and cruel eye. Javert is always looking for Valjean, chasing him, and seeking to arrest him after he breaks his parole.  An eye for an eye  is also Javert’s law. He believes there is only one way to treat others, and it is by strict justice.

The story builds to a climactic scene in which Jean Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert. But instead of an eye for an eye, instead of retribution for the lifetime of pain Javert has inflicted on his life, Jean Valjean shows him mercy, cuts his bound hands loose, and sends his enemy away as a free man.

But receiving such grace plunges Javert, the legalist, into a quandary he cannot resolve within himself. Mercy does not compute in him equation of right and wrong; life and death.

Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he?
To have caught me in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!
Damned if I live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I yield at the end of the chase!
I am the law and the law is not mocked!
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face!
There is nothing on earth that we share!
It is either Valjean or Javert!
How can I allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man that I have hunted . . .
He gave me my life! He gave me freedom!
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right . . .
It was my right to die as well . . .
Instead I live . . . But live in hell!
And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?
And must I now begin to doubt
Who never doubted all those years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles . . .
The world I have known is lost in shadow
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?
 
Hugo writes of Javert “He saw two roads before him, both equally straight, but he saw two of them; and this terrified him. . . . Jean Valjean’s generosity toward him, Javert, devastated him.”

This road of mercy, freely offered, is often incomprehensible to a legalist and can even harden the soul of one who is unwilling to be broken open by the gift of unmerited love. In the perplexing face of such a conflict — the face of unmerited mercy — Javert the legalist jumps off a bridge and kills himself.

Grace, God’s mercy is redemptive beyond our imaginings, and it is that Grace that is the major them of Hugo’s work. To the sinner who is willing to confront his own sin and self-insufficiency (and who among us is not a sinner) and who is willing to be humbled, it give life anew. But to the legalist who refuses to confront his own sins and self-insufficiency, this same offer of mercy becomes an inescapable problem that hardens the soul. It might remind you of the tales of Jesus’ parables of the tax collector and the prodigal son and the older brother.

The journey of Lent toward the love of Good Friday and the gift of Easter invites us to examine our own hearts, our own willingness to gratefully receive and graciously offer grace and mercy. We will continue to explore this and so much more about God’s love on Sunday mornings during Lent and on Wednesday evenings from 6-7pm in Apple Corps beginning tonight.

Won’t you join us? Do you hear the people sing?

May grace and mercy be yours,

Pastor Lara
aka “The Vicar”
Prayer Concerns

 Christian love and sympathy to Priscilla Shipe on the death of Skip Shipe. Walt Milligan on the death of his aunt, Mary Sue Medart.

Martin Community: Virginia Browning, Glen Dow, Barb Herbison, Tomasi Latu & family, Kay LeClaire, Melissa Norton, Bobbie Ross, Bailey & Suzie Smith, Lee Swann, John Tinney

Family & Friends: Jana Faye Bowden, Lauren Brown, Donna & Taryn Cates, Gwen Caylor, Cory Chalk, Kevin Clark, Rose Foley, Barbara Gorden, Art Grimes, Keith Hale, Patrice Harriell, Susan Henry, Pat Hern, Barbara Hertz, Edgar Hough III, William Hough III, Eric & Gary Huff, JoAnn Jenkins, Georgiana Jones, Adi Koloamatangi, Larry Kempe & family, Katherine Lee, Susan Lee & Family, Johnny Lovette, Al Mack, Emily Manning, Milton & Janie Marburger, Lana McCormick, Sandy & Pat McDonald & family, Fran Meece, Ted Moore, Jan Murphy, Jody Murphy & family, Jan Nelson, Merle Owens, Monica Miles, Bill & Jo Miller, Susan Miller, Billy Parker, George Parker, Steve Parker, Linda Pool and family, Roxanne Ramey, Michelle Risenhoover, Dottie Rust, Taylor Rust, James Sills, Cressan & Jerry Smith, Bill & Dorothy Standley, Gary & Paula Steele, John & Terri Stridesberg, Tim Sweet, Monette Tawbush & family, Cathy & Daisy Uhi, Al Viney, Tilila Walter, Kathy Walton