The best sermon I’ve heard…and it wasn’t from a pulpit!

<GASP!>   Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?!?

I know, right?  The best sermon I’ve heard in a long while and it didn’t come from a pulpit.

It was actually…

brace yourselves…

from a movie!

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.  The first 14min 30sec of the 2012 Les Miserables movie has to be one of the best sermons I’ve heard in a long time…  a long time.  Now to clarify, I’ve seen/experienced this movie/story many times before and have been touched by some of the same scenes in different and also similar ways.  I’ve seen the movie adaptation with Liam Neeson.  I’ve seen the 25th Anniversary Les Miserables production special on PBS too.  The scenes are touching in both of those offerings as well.  I’ve never read the book, but a neighbor friend of mine is currently reading it and according to her, it’s a pretty good read.  Well, who can argue with a classic anyways, right?

Finally though, the scenes that have touched me both in the past and present and one in particular finally “clicked” and spoke right to my heart.  What touched me was clarified.

I’m moved to tears at both the suffering of Jean Valjean and the goodness of God that transforms him.  Go watch the movie from 0:00 to 14:30min and then come back.  Or not and just keep reading, I’ll describe the scene for you.

Look down…look down.

When we first see Jean Valjean, he has almost twenty years of imprisonment under his belt.  Imprisoned for stealing bread to feed a starving child and further imprisoned for once trying to escape, he has his place among criminals of lesser crimes and also of greater, more sinister crimes.  The Law looks upon all of them evenly.  They are not people, they are criminals, they are less than human.  Like all of the other prisoners, he has tried to hold on to something of what he once was before his imprisonment, a shred of hope that continually gets assaulted by the other prisoners, the prison workers, the guards especially and even prison life.

The opening scene reveals hundreds of chained men, in the middle of a cold rain storm.  They are all assembled in lines on different levels of what appears to be a dry-dock.  The men are all tugging on thick rope that is attached to a large ship.  This ship is being slowly tossed to and fro by the winds and waves of the storm, and slowly, oh so slowly, it inches forward.  Waves crash upon the men and the cold stinging rain continually beating upon and soaking everyone including the guards and jailers.

In true musical fashion, the prisoners begin to chant and sing the opening song, constant reminders of their fate and station in life.  A few voice their hopes for when they become free or for those waiting for them, all to be dashed down from their fellow prisoners reminded them of their current reality.

Look down, look down, don't look them in the eye.
Look down, look down, don’t look them in the eye.

Look down, look down…

…don’t look them (the guards and jailers) in the eye

…you’re here until you die.

…sweet Jesus doesn’t care.

…they’ve all forgotten you.

…you’re standing in your grave.

Soaking and exhausted, the storm has subsided, the ship is settled in the dry dock and the chained men hobble away in lines at the end of the day.  Javert, one of the guards in charge, a menacing and fierce character, is about to deliver news to Valjean of his release and explain that he is out on parole.  Javert stops Valjean and orders him to retrieve the flag which is attached to a piece of the ship’s mast that has broken off – one last grueling duty of work at the end of an exhausting day.  Another prisoner begins to go help Valjean and Javert stops him.  Alone, other prisoners and Javert looking on, Valjean shows his strength and resolve and lifts the mast, dragging the silt and ocean water-soaked flag along the dry dock and drops it by Javerts feet.  His task complete, Javert delivers the news.  He asked Valjean if he understands what this means, and Valjean with a small, hopeful smile says that he is free.  Javert’s menacing gaze turns even colder.

No.

Javert tells him he must follow the instructions of this letter always, showing it to those who request it, he is marked as a dangerous man.

Valjean can’t comprehend how he is a dangerous man for just stealing some bread, a slave to the Law.  Javert does “his job” to remind him of who and what exactly he is, referring only to Valjean by his prisoner number, never by name.  Basically saying, you belong here 24601.  Valjean insists he has a name, again trying to hold on to a scrap of humanity.  Javert shows no mercy or compassion.

Do not forget me 24601...
Do not forget me 24601…

Do not forget ME…24601…

Valjean hobbles away, still clinging to hope for a change, hope for a new life outside the prison.  Clinging to a hope that despite what was done, maybe, just maybe he can reclaim himself as Jean Valjean the man, not the numbered criminal.

He is met with rejection, suspicion, mockery, aggression, and loneliness as he travels from town to town reporting to the next authority and the next.  Everywhere he tries to find work he is rejected (or short-changed his wages due to his criminal status – although that is not shown here).  Cold and alone, he rests on the darkened doorstep of a church and is found by the bishop.  Instinct takes over at first, the light of the lantern alerting Valjean and he thinks he is under attack and then sees the lone bishop, a man who invites him inside, the man who will forever mark and change Valjean.

<Sigh…>

I still can’t do it justice, but I shall try!  You really should watch the movie and get back to me on this.

The Goodness of God leads us to repentance.  Love covers a multitude of sins.

Come in sir...
Come in sir…

Come in sir for you are weary, and the night is cold out there. 

Though our lives are very humble, 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.
These are the words that Valjean hears being uttered from the Bishop’s mouth as he is welcomed into the mission/church.  Valjean quickly huddles by the fire, trying to warm himself.  The meal is prepared, the Bishop having them prepare the meal with their fine silver utensils and dishes.  A famished Valjean begins to dive in to the meal.  The Bishop doesn’t seem to mind (although the two women seem to) and just begins a simple prayer which includes Valjean as his honored guest,  a notion which stops Valjean in mid-swallow.  Suspicious and still overly cautious to the sudden warm treatment, he continues to eat (can you blame him?).  At the end of the night, tempted by the life he has been in and the prospect of being alone again the next day, he notices where the silver that he just ate on was being placed for the night.  Alone in his bed, looking above at the fresco of Jesus painted on the ceiling, you can see Valjean walking a razor’s edge.  Struggling between the kindness offered him, and the rejection and cold that could possibly greet him tomorrow.  (Though in other versions of the play, the BIshop tells Valjean he can stay as long as he likes)
Should he rest?  Should he steal the silver and be off?  What is the worst that could happen?  If he is caught, at least he will have some sort of shelter(even if it’s not completely warm), some sort of meal(even if it’s terrible), and some sort of work(even if it means slavery and eventual death).
It is all he has known.
Yet this goodness, this friendliness and love without hooks, strings or asterisks is something new and foreign to him.  It is like a ghost haunting him from his past, when things were better and he had known love from family and friends.  Valjean cannot take anymore and leaves, stealing the silver.  He is caught, and brought back broken and beaten by the authorities to the bishop to confess what he did.  The authorities state that Valjean was caught and lied saying the Bishop gave him the silver.  Resigned to go back to the prisons and to slavery, Valjean is stopped dead in his tracks by the Bishops words and actions.
(regarding the “given” silver)  That is right.  But my friend, you left so early.  Surely something slipped your mind.  You forgot I gave these also, would you leave the best behind?
You forgot these also...
You forgot these also…
The Bishop also gives him the large silver candlesticks and turns to the guards.
This man has spoken true.  Release him.  I commend you for your duty, may God’s blessings go with you.
Valjean doesn’t know what to make of this, more of this mercy, goodness, undeserved love and unmerited favor washing over him in an uncontrollable wave.  He doesn’t know what to do, or why this is happening to him.  He knows just exactly what he deserves.
Valjean, still on his knees where the authorities left him, in front of the man who has just freed him with a gift of even more silver than what he stole. and the Bishop continues to speak to him directly.
Remember this my brother...
Remember this my brother…
Remember this, my brother.  See in this, some higher plan.  You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.
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.
And with this charge, the Bishop does one more thing Valjean doesn’t expect.  He touches him.  It isn’t a blow to the head, but his hand gently resting on his head.  A touch of human compassion that Valjean has gone without for nearly twenty years, another person touching him in love.
Left alone to rest and do as he wishes, we find Valjean struggling over everything that has just happened.

What have I done?  Sweet Jesus, what have I done?  Become a thief in the night, become a dog on the run.  Have I fallen so far, is the hour so late that nothing remains but the cry of my hate?  The cries in the dark that nobody hears, here where I stand at the turning of the years?

If there’s another way to go, I missed it twenty long years ago.  My life was a war that could never be won, they gave me a number and murdered Valjean when they chained me and left me for dead, just for stealing a mouthful of bread.

Yet why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love?  He treated me like any other, he gave me his trust; he called me brother.  My life he claims for God above, can such things be?  For I had come to hate this world, this world that always hated me.

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 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 came to move my life?  Is there another way to go?

I am reaching, but I fall and the night is closing in.  And I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin.  I’ll escape now from that world, from the world of Jean Valjean.  Jean Valjean is nothing now!  Another story must begin!

The new man storms out of the mission tearing up his yellowed parole instructions and throws them into the air.  The music changes into a spirit lifting melody and you feel a break from the tension of Valjean’s torment and the hope of a new life for him.

And that is the first fourteen minutes of the film!  And I am undone.

Now, you probably are already putting messages together in your head or gleaning some sort of meaning from the movie or what I’ve written here.  Awesome!  That’s good.  Just stay with me a bit longer and let us compare notes.  I’d love to hear what you get from those scenes too.

The Message.

Man, this is the part that I hope I can fully do justice to.  To relay what is in my heart, through my fingers and into this medium we call blogging.

I am tempted to talk about the parallels that I see between The Law and Grace, they are so prevalent, but that’s not what I want to focus on.  I mainly want to focus on how one small event can be used by God.

How many times has a friendly face come up to you, started up a conversation and you don’t think to yourself:  what does he/she want?  And most of us probably have other, more colorful language choices when we think those thoughts too, I know I do.  Be honest – those thoughts happen all the time.  We are a society used to strings attached.

From surveys to cable tv sales to street evangelists, rarely…RARELY does anyone strike up a friendly conversation without a string attached. 

This is one thing wrong with how many, many churches approach trying to convert people, and it is actually one of the top things that turns people off to Christ.  They are treated like a thing to change.  Not like a person of value in whom we should get to know and love.  Now extrapolate that to all the “unloveables” or the “untouchables” in society, or to hit closer to home, those that we (speaking as one who use to be in the institution known as church) deem unloveable or untouchable?

What if, just what if, we tried to just let the love of God that is already inside of us pour out to other people and let God do the converting?

Is the first fourteen minutes not one of the best examples of the Gospel in action?  Do you see the example of how the Spirit of God will work in a man without strings attached?

Granted, some might say that the priest did have strings attached, with the agenda of conversion.  Fair enough.  Could be.  However, what if the priest understood that God is the one who changes the heart?  What if the priest was only looking at the true value of Valjean as a human being and looking at the potential on the inside and was acting accordingly, instead of reacting to Valjean’s appearance and actions on the outside?

–No, no, no, no!  Don’t start diving into theological issues about what the Bishop said about saving his soul for God and about catholicism here.  We all know that God saves the soul.  Get over it, move on.  That isn’t the point!–

Valjean has only known cruelty, hatred, malice; cold, pain and hunger for nearly twenty years and by two small encounters with a man whom God’s love shines through so sincerely, Valjean becomes transformed.  God uses all of the years of evil inflicted upon Valjean and washes it away with the actions of one man.  God’s love and goodness has been at work here and washes over him so much so that it compels Valjean to change his mind about God, humanity and even his own worth.  In essence, he repents.  He changes his mind and responds to what God is doing on the inside.

–No, no, no!  Don’t start diving into your formula for how someone is ‘supposed’ to come to Christ!  God saves the soul, not a formulaic prayer.  Christ is the Way, God regenerates the heart as he wills, his children respond then in belief.  You would have to be a cold-hearted, religiously pious, letter of the Law type of person to say that his soliloquy isn’t a picture of his conversion.  Just focus…mmkay?–

Valjean figures the only way to move on in this new grace is for a new life to begin. (Hmm, that sounds familiar!)  He uses the silver to become the new man on the outside and within the span of eight or so years, becomes a factory owner and mayor of a town.  The man who was once rejected by all is now a loving and watchful shepherd of a small town.  The man whose life meant nothing to anyone, now holds people’s lives in his hand as he cares for them.  Everything he now does is done in light of his conversion and the goodness of God shown to him.

He even encounters Javert who can’t even recognize him until Valjean uses his strength (the same beast-like strength he used to lift the ship mast so long ago) to save a man from death.  Everything Valjean does is colored now by the Grace shown and given to him.  Valjean learns from Javert that a criminal who was recently caught is believed to actually be Valjean.  Instead of letting this man suffer in his place, he reveals his old identity to save a life and then flees authorities, not for his own well-being, but for that of Cosette, a small child that is directly in his care.  Time and time again, Valjean lays his own life down for the sake of others.  He even takes great risks to save and spare Javert’s own life.

All because of the Grace shown to him within the span of 12 or so hours, by one man.

Oh, how we need this.  How I need this!  I find myself giving grace and showing love where I can, and I also find myself shying away from it and not risking as much as I want to.  I am so thankful for His Grace and Love as He continues to teach me and raise me.

This movie stirs my heart and makes me want to live with more love flowing from out of me to others, to touch the untouchable.  I wish I could say I’ve embraced the opportunities to do so more than I have shied away from them.  I continue onward, little by little, trying to tip the scale in the other direction and risk to love more.

Watching this movie challenges me to continue forward, trusting that God is in fact not only big enough to handle my questions, but that He is truly big enough to be as He claims:  The Author and Finisher of my Faith.  He began it, He will finish it.  He is raising me into the adulthood of his Son.  He is big enough to show me times to grow and how to let the new creation that I am to naturally come forward and express itself in my life without having to worry about what rules to follow, what commands to obey.  I am trusting it to happen naturally as I abide and live in Him.  Some people mistake this as laziness.  How can you?  A vine’s branch cannot produce grapes of its own accord, the fruit is produced as the life is given to the branch from the vine.  One can either do do do in a forced rhythm that isn’t anything in Christ, or one can trust and act in the natural ebb and flows of life as opportunities arise.

Out of a small encounter, almost twenty years of cruelty and hardship is erased.  From a small event, God takes the rock-hard shell of the man and washes it away, taking the heart of stone and replacing it with a softened heart of flesh.  With an act of love and grace, a man goes from hating the world, to showing and giving unconditional love to those that need it most.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few things, unable to fully translate what I feel deep down inside.  I hope you have enjoyed this blog post, it is pretty long.

It is risky to love the unloved.

It is risky to trust God to actually do what He said he’d do and not try to take it over to with our dead works, actions and programs too.

I can’t help but have a constant suspicion that the risk is well worth it.

“The love another person is to see the face of God”  ~Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserable

“We love because He first loved us.”  1 John 4:19

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