LUTHERAN VESPERS SERMON
The Rev. Dr. Richard Jensen
September 6, 1992
“They’re doing our job,” I said in astonishment. “And they do it better than we do.” That’s what I said after seeing the grand musical, Les Miserables, for the first time. Les Miz, as it’s usually called, has now been heard by more people than have heard any musical ever written. It’s popularity attests to its power. Les Miz functions at many levels, but at its central level in the life of its hero, it’s a story of sin, forgiveness, and new life. Les Miz, that is, does our job, does the job of announcing the Gospel of God’s grace, and it does it better than most of us in the church ever do.
Les Miserables is French for the “miserable ones,” the “wretched of the earth.” I have been personally so overpowered by this musical that I want to spend today, and the next two Sundays, plumbing its depths with you who hear on Lutheran Vespers.
Les Miserables is based on the French novel of the same title, written in the mid 19th century, by Victor Hugo. It was cast in its present textual for by —. — wrote the music. Les Miz was first staged in France in 1980. It has since played to sold out audiences throughout the world. I hope that you will enjoy these Lutheran Vespers’ programs based on this marvelous musical. I pray that God will speak to you as powerfully through this story as God has spoken to me.
The musical begins with its focus on a prison chain gang, singing of their misery. The is date is 1815. The central hero of the story is part of the chain gang. His name is Jean Valjean. He has served 19 years in prison for stealing one loaf of bread to try to help save his sister’s life. He is a bitter man about to receive his freedom, at least it is to be freedom.
The jailer, named Javert, tells him he is not going to be free at all. Valjean is to receive his yellow ticket which will forever identify him as a thief. The jailer, Javert, will track Valjean throughout his life. The character of Javert will be our focus next week.
Valjean is let go. And he discovers how little freedom he has. In every town they check his papers and find on him the cursed “mark of Cain.” Valjean is a sinner who must forever pay for his sin. And then—a miracle happens— the bishop in a small town welcomes Valjean into his home for the evening and treats him with great respect.
Valjean can’t understand why the bishop has trusted him so. Never matter. Valjean does not repay in kind. Instead, when the household is asleep, Valjean steals some silver from the bishop’s home and takes his flight.
His flight doesn’t last long. The long arm of the law seizes him very quickly. Valjean protests to the policeman, offering a useful lie. Valjean, the sinner, tells him that he had forgotten to take two silver candlesticks—which he had given to him as well. The bishop then says to Valjean, sings a song, I quote it:
But remember this, my brother
See ion 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 bought your soul for God.
Valjean is overwhelmed by this act of grace. He sings a song which basically asks how it is that one ought to live one’s life in the light of forgiveness. He sings:
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
And the song goes on:
I feel shame like a knife inside me
He told me I have a soul
And his song concludes:
I’ll escape now from the world, from the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin
Another story must begin. That’s Valjean’s response to the forgiveness of his sins. That his response to the bishop’s act of grace. That’s his response to a love that can come only from God. Another story must begin.
At the central level, Les Miz is the story of the life that began in Valjean that day, in the light of God’s grace. The stage is now set for the rest of the story. The musical skips over eight years of time to another town where Jean Valjean has used the riches poured out upon him by the bishop, acting in God’s stead, used it to become a rich man. Valjean is a factory owner now. He is the mayor of his town.
And we meet Fantine who works in his factory. In a crowd of workers, a letter is snatched from Fantine’s hand. The letter reveals that Fantine has a daughter who is being cared for by two innkeepers. They demand more money from Fantine. Fantine is furious that the letter has been taken from her and read aloud. She fights to get her letter back.
Valjean appears and asks his foreman to sort out the fighting. The foreman grows furious with Fantine and fires her from her job at the factory. Fantine is now reduced to being a prostitute in order to raise the money she needs for her daughter. When she fights off and scratches a man who treats her with distain, she’s arrested by Javert, the same policeman who set Valjean loose from prison.
Valjean appears and intercedes for Fantine. She tells Valjean that it is all his fault. He turned her over to his foreman who had fired her from her job at his factory. Valjean is grief stricken over the turn of events. He promises Fantine that he will take care of his daughter, Cosette.
Just then, a runaway cart rambles through the streets and pins a man underneath its weight. Valjean, a powerfully built man, lifts the cart and rescues the man. “You come from God,” the rescued man says. “You’re a saint.” Another story has indeed begun for Valjean. Valjean, the saint, now lives side by side with Valjean, the sinner.
The scene in the street, however, has brought together again the policeman and the thief, Javert and Valjean. Javert doesn’t recognize Valjean, but he says that he only knows of one man who had the strength to do such a feat. “That man”, he says, “is a convict from a chain gang who at long last has been arrested to be tried in court.”
Valjean is dumbfounded. Another man is to be tried in his place?! And what shall he do? “If I speak, “ he sings, “I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned.” Listen to Valjean sing of this trial of his identity:
Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not feel is agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgment in my place?
Who am I?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi? Must I lie?
How can I face my fellow man?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
Who am I? Who am I? I am Jean Valjean!
My soul belongs to God, sings Valjean. Another story has begun in Valjean’s life. He must tell the truth now. He’s a different man.
We see Valjean next at Fantine’s bedside. She’s dying and thinks only of the face of Cosette, her daughter. Valjean promises that he will care for Cosette as long as he lives. Fantine speaks to him, “You come from God in heaven.”
Valjean remains true to his word. He goes to the innkeepers who have Cosette and purchases from them her freedom. Cosette shall have a father now, exclaims Valjean. Another story has begun in Valjean’s life, born out of the power of forgiving love. This forgiven man has turned a new page in his life. Love by God, he shares that love with others.
The scene of the story shifts now to Paris. The year is 1832. Nine years more have passed. We’re introduced to Paris by the miserable ones of the town, much like the streets of our major cities today, the streets of Paris in 1832 were filled with poor and desperate people. This will be the cause of the student revolt that is pivotal to the Les Miz story.
It is on the miserable streets of Paris that one of the student revolutionaries, named Marius, first meets the now grown and lovely Cosette. A love story blossoms in the midst of the poverty and talk of revolution. Jean Valjean also lives now in Paris. He watches these young revolutionaries, at first, from afar. When he becomes aware of the budding romance between Cosette, the daughter he never had, and Marius, a young revolutionary, Valjean is moved to join the battle himself.
In the first hours of the fighting, Valjean shoots a sniper who was about to kill the leader of the revolution. The leader wishes to give some reward to Valjean. Valjean asks that their prisoner, Javert, his old nemesis, be given into his care. And so it is, Javert is unbending, “Take your revenge!” he shouts at Valjean. “You talk too muich, “responds Valjean. “Your life is safe in my hands.”
And Valjean proceeds to give this policeman, this man of law and order and revenge, give him his freedom. “You’re free,” Valjean says to Javert. “And there are no conditions, no bargains, no petitions. There is nothing that I blame you for. You have done your duty, nothing more.” With that, Valjean sets free the very man who sought for years to put him back in prison. Another story has indeed begun in Valjean’s life. Forgiven by God, he forgives the very man who hates and despises him the most. Such is the power of forgiveness, forgiveness of sins, forgiveness from God makes it possible for another story to begin in the life of the thief, in the life of Jean Valjean.
The musical highlight of Les Miserables, Les Miz at least in my opinion, occurs just now. The revolutionaries sleep the night to prepare for the battle the next day. We see Marius, asleep at the barricades. Valjean stands over this young man who has fallen in love with a woman he, Valjean has raised. Valjean prays to God in heaven that Marius will come home safely. He prays for the son he might have know, if God had given him a son:
Bring him peace
Bring him joy
He is young
He is only a boy
You can take
You can give
Let him be
Let him live
If I die, let me die
Let him live
Bring him home (3x)
The battle ensues. The student revolutionaries are slaughtered. Marius is wounded. But Valjean is able to escape with this young, wounded man, thrown over his shoulder. Marius is eventually reunited with Cosette who assists him in the recovery from the scars of battle. Marius does not know, however, how it is that he escaped, or who it was that helped him. Both he and Cosette, however, look upon Valjean as their father. Valjean tells Marius the whole story of days long ago, but asks that Marius never tell Cosette.
Marius and Cosette are married. At the wedding feast, the wicked innkeeper, who kept Cosette for Fantine years ago, reveals inadvertently to Marius, that it was Jean Valjean who saved his life at the barricades. Valjean is not at the wedding. In the final scene, he sits alone at his table with a bare wooden cross for company. Fatine’s spirit appears beside him. She tells him that he can now die in peace. “You raised my child in love,” she says, “and you’ll be with God,.”
Marius and Cosette reappear. Valjean take her presence as a final word of forgiveness over his life. Marius proclaims that Valjean is a saint for saving his life at the barricades. Valjean is now ready to die in peace. But Cosette protests, “It is too soon to say good-bye.” And Valjean sings,
Yes, Cosette, forbid me now to die
I’ll obey—I’ll try
On this page—I write my last confession
Read it well—when at last I’m sleeping
It’s a story of those who always loved you
Your mother gave her life for you
Then gave you to my keeping
Come with me- where chains will never bind you
All grief at last, at last behind you
Lord, in heaven, look down on him with mercy
Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory
Take my hand and lead me to salvation
Take my love for love is everlasting
And remember, the truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the Face of God
The last lines of this song, the last lines before the final chorus, may sing the truth of the entire drama- to love another person is to see the Face of God. Valjean experienced the Face of God in the forgiving word of the bishop long ago. His life then began another story. He lived the life of loving other people.
God’s Face is revealed in the forgiving work of Jesus Christ. God’s Face is also revealed when out of the power of that forgiving work that we love other people.
The biblical story that comes to my mind every time I rehearse the story of Les Miz is the story of the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son story centers on a young man who took all that his father could give and proceeded to waste it all through a life of sin. When he was at the bottom of the pit, feeding pigs in a far country, he finally came to his senses. In repentance, he returned to his father, hoping that perhaps his father would let him return as a hired servant. That was the best he could hope for.
And then, a miracle happened—a miracle of grace. The Prodigals’ father saw his son coming in the distance and ran out to meet him. The Prodigal tried to give his repentant speech, but the father was too overjoyed to listen. He said, “Quickly, bring out a robe, the best one, and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Get the fatted calf and kill it. And let us rejoice and eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive. He was lost, and is found.”
Every time I think of the bishop’s act of forgiveness towards Jean Valjean, I think of the story of the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son and Valjean have a lot in common. They both received an incredible welcome of grace.
We understand that, in both instances, their welcome was a welcome made possible by God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. The welcome of grace turned Valjean’s life around. Another story did begin in his life. We assume that the same thing happened to the Prodigal. The lost was found. The dead man came alive. A new story could begin in his life as well.
And so it is with us. We are sinners, too. We are sinners like the Prodigal Son. We are sinners like Valjean. We are also sinners who stand in need of an incredible welcome of grace. Jesus Christ is that welcome.
I welcome you to my home, said the Father to his Prodigal Son. I welcome you to my home said the bishop to Valjean. I welcome you to my home, says Jesus Christ to each and every one of you, listening to my voice. Your sins are forgiven. You are lost and now you’re found. Let my forgiving love that now embrace you, in turn, become the power to make another story begin in your life from this moment on. Amen.