Feb. 26, 2012 Lent 1 “God in the Slums”

Yesterday the girls and I braved the snow and wind to drive down to Syracuse to see a performance of Les Miserables. It’s the first Broadway musical I’ve ever seen and if it’s the only one I ever get to see, I would have chosen this one, because the story is so profound. The plot is complicated and there are a lot of different characters, but the story centers on two main characters.  One is an inspector, named Javert, who is absolutely dedicated to the law. He believes that righteousness before God consists in maintaining a just society, which means that as a policeman he is bound to enforce the law rigorously and make sure that all lawbreakers are punished.

The other character is Jean ValJean, who sees the law from a completely different viewpoint. As the play opens, he has just served 19 years of imprisonment and hard labor for stealing some bread to feed his family. When he is finally released from prison, his freedom isn’t much better. Because he was a convict, he is a marked man; no one is willing to hire him or treat him as a human being. He falls into poverty and becomes more and more bitter and desperate. One night, when he is at his most destitute and hopeless, the Bishop in the nearby church offers him hospitality: he gives him good food and a warm place to stay. ValJean has become so bitter that he repays the Bishop’s kindness by stealing silver from the church. But when he is caught, the Bishop does something that transforms this man’s life. Instead of pressing charges against this ungrateful wretch, the Bishop says, “My brother, you’ve forgotten something. Here, you forgot these silver candlesticks.” And he turns to the policeman – who is, of course, Inspector Javert, and he lies to him, saying, “Inspector, I thank you for doing your duty, but, you see, this man has committed no crime – this silver that he has was a gift.” And when the Inspector is gone, he tells ValJean to take the silver and go make a new life, serving God.

The play is about the suffering of the people of France at the time of the French Revolution, who lived in wretched poverty, with so little dignity and kindness in their lives that many had sunk into all kinds of immorality. And through these two main characters, Inspector Javert and Jean ValJean, Victor Hugo, who wrote the book, was asking the question – where is God in all this? Is God the pure and perfect maintainer of justice, tireless in stamping out evil in all its forms? Or is he a God of grace, sharing in the sufferings of the people, bringing about justice by way of mercy and love?

Hugo showed us his answer to that question through the fates of his characters.

All through the story, for years and years, Inspector Javert  ruthlessly pursues ValJean to throw him back in prison for his theft, but ValJean continues to live a life dedicated to loving and serving others. And then comes the final confrontation between the two men. Javert is captured by a band of revolutionaries. They are going to execute him, and ValJean rescues him and spares his life. The Inspector knows that ValJean has overcome his justice with something much greater, but he can’t come to grips with it. He ends up committing suicide, unable to let go of his reliance on the law. But ValJean lives to be an old man. Having lived a life of suffering and sacrifice, he dies peacefully, surrounded by the people whose lives he has touched by his love and mercy.

So Hugo’s answer was, “That’s where God is – living among his people, overcoming evil with mercy, and healing suffering with love.” And as we enter this season of Lent, and call to mind Jesus’s Passion and death on our behalf, we can see how true that is. Our God is absolutely perfect and Holy; we know that Jesus was like us in every way, but without sin. God can have no part in evil, but his answer to evil and sin was never to separate himself from us, never to stand back and lay down the law just to crush the sin out of us. God’s answer was to come and join us in the mess we made. Jesus is God in the slums, come to live with all the consequences of sin, poverty and sickness and conflict and pain and even death along with us, to know, from the inside, what it means to be human. The writer to the Hebrews says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Many times in the Bible God describes himself as a merciful and gracious God. If Jesus had not come to show us what God looked like, we might think he was merciful like a great king who throws coins to the peasants as he rides by in his carriage, or a judge who sits high on his bench and offers us time off for good behavior. But Jesus showed us what God’s mercy really looks like. God’s mercy is the mercy of one who touched lepers and ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, who held conversations with women and took time to bless children, the mercy of one who lived as a homeless vagrant, teaching and healing everyone who came to him, no matter how poor or disreputable they were. Paul wrote that Jesus is the image of the invisible God- that means he came so that we could see who God is, in the flesh – he showed us a God who loves and cares for his creation from the inside, by becoming a part of his own creation, and not an exalted part, a lowly and despised part. Jesus revealed to us that our God who is perfect in power and wisdom is also perfect in kindness and humility.

As a man, Jesus’s life also reveals to us who we are, and shows us how to live as children of God. We read today in Mark that before Jesus began his ministry, he went out into the desert for forty days and was tempted by Satan. He was leading us like a shepherd, walking before us in all the ways that we would need to go. He didn’t fall into temptation, but as a true human being he had to struggle against sin just as we do. The writer to the Hebrews even says that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” And so this season of Lent that we are beginning we follow him into the desert. If you honestly try to be disciplined, if you promise to be more faithful in prayer or study  during Lent, if you vow to make time in your weekly schedule for the Stations of the Cross or in your daily schedule for the daily office during Lent; if you decide to memorize Scripture or read a daily devotional or fast on a certain day every week – no matter what discipline you decide to work on, you will surely find yourself wrestling with Satan in some way: No student is greater than his master, and so we should never be surprised or discouraged if we find ourselves struggling with weariness or laziness or scheduling conflicts or illness – Satan has hundreds of tricks up his sleeve. Our wise and gracious teacher walked this way before us, so we would know what to expect. The good news is that we never need to despair, because his mercies are new every morning, and as often as we fall, he is there to forgive us and to give us new strength to continue on the road. Like our teacher, we will learn obedience through what we suffer, and his strength will be revealed through our every weakness, for his glory and our joy, and for the building up of his people.

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