Les Miserables, a story that depicted the wretchedness of human conditions and the grace that comes to all from above, has moved and perhaps transformed countless lives through its gospel message written to the suffering world.
John Ortberg, senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, over the weekend deciphered the gospel according Les Miserables for the members of his church in Silicon Valley, highlighting the doctrine of substitutionary love and the promise for all whose hope is in God.
In his sermon, Ortberg said that often the story is thought of as a battle of law versus grace, with Javert, a police official, representing the law, but that’s not quite right.
Ortberg said the law that Jesus summarized is this: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbors like yourself. Be the kind of person who is filled with gratitude, devotion, worship and adoration, then just love people…carry the burdens of others as if they were your burden.”
While Javert thought of himself as the champion of the law, he was actually the biggest law-breaker, he said, even bigger and more blinded than the convict Valjean.
The pastor pointed out that the author Victor Hugo uses “precisely the same image hundreds of pages apart to describe the crisis in the lives of both men,” where each is “like an owl blinded by the sun, because when you’ve been living in the shadow, what is really light just blinds you at first.”
Valjean suffered and hated in his heart, which Hugo calls it the irremediable misery – “not just misery (les miserable), but there’s no remedy for it,” Ortberg said. Yet, Valjean is changed when grace came to him through a bishop called Monseigneur Bienvenu or “Mr. Welcome.”
The pastor then described this doctrine of substitutionary love through the words of Apostle Paul, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
“In Hugo’s words, the bishop ‘visited the poor so long as he had any money; when he no longer had any, he visited the rich,’” he said. “He constantly sacrificed his own advantages so the disadvantaged might flourish.”
The pastor then asked the members of the congregation whether their church would be known as the “’Church of the Welcome’ when it comes to the poor, the dropouts, or the drugged out, or the homeless, or the folks in prison.”
Ortberg then told the bishop’s treatment of Valjean that is characterized by God’s grace and love towards an undeserving one. At first, Valjean did not understand the bishop’s kindness, so he steals the silverwares, but was caught by police.
Police brought Valjean back to the bishop, who says to him, “You have forgotten the most precious, the most valuable gift I had to give you. These candlesticks are worth more than everything else, and you forgot them. Take them with you.” Ortberg said that the bishop not only doesn’t sent him to prison, but gives him even more.
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil but to good. It is your soul that I buy back from you. I withdraw it from black thoughts and [sin], and I give it to God,” said the bishop.
Valjean was locked up in prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s children, so his heart has been hardened. Yet, it is at this moment, Valjean felt “a strange emotion which he resisted and to which he opposed the hardness acquired … To this celestial kindness he opposed pride, which is the fortress of evil within us,” read Ortberg.
Valjean clenched his fish with his hands in his hair, kneeling and crying out, “I am a wretch!” he said. “Then his heart burst, and he began to cry. It was the first time that he had wept in nineteen years.”
“What cruelty could not do to his heart, what pain couldn’t do, grace did,” said Ortberg.
“Now Valjean is going to have to die to all of that hardness … anger … vengenance … bitterness … he’s going to have to be humbled … to be absolutely undone by guilt,” he said, adding that Valjean will “either conquer or be conquered, and he’s conquered by grace. He bends the knee. He submits to God.”
“We are the miserable ones. We cannot save ourselves, and precisely when we did not deserve it, convicted of guilt and sin, God chose to sacrifice what was most precious to him. Jesus put himself in our place. He is the great substitute. He took our debt. He died our death. He paid our ransom. He bore our guilt. He carried our burden. He suffered our curse.
“Grace comes, but I have to go to my knees. I have to swallow my pride. I have to humble my spirit. That’s the gospel story. I wonder if you’ve ever done that, just come to God and said, ‘God, I recognize now I need your grace, and I want to receive it through Jesus.’ Valjean does, and he becomes a new person.”
Continuing on with the story, Ortberg highlighted how Valjean was chased by Javert, but grace came upon Javert through the convict Valjean. In a dramatic scene, Valjean had the chance to kill Javert.
“By all human conventions, he should have done so, but he spared his life instead,” said Ortberg. “He saved his life, and this is the great crisis of Javert’s existence.”
“He could have humbled himself. He could have realized his own soul was filled with pride and lovelessness and arrogance and superiority and his own kind of hardness and judgmentalism all of these years. He could have asked to be saved, and he could have thrown his arms around Valjean and declared him his brother and his friend.”
Yet, Javert couldn’t do that, because it offended his pride, Ortberg explained. “’Mine is the way of the Lord,’ he said.”
Referencing the Scripture from Deuteronomy, Ortberg preached, “Grace comes to two men in the gospel according to Les Miserables. It says, as it has always said, and as it says to you right now, ‘This day…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.’”
“One man, Valjean, died to himself the death of repentance, and he lived. Another man, Javert, would not bend the knee, would not swallow his pride, would not let go of his stupid stubbornness, and he died the death of despair.”
Ortberg said the story ends in hope as it is a gospel story. As Valjean was dying alone, Cosette and Marius rushed to tell him their gratitude after realizing the extent of his love and sacrifice. Valjean’s letter to the two reads, “On this page, I write my last confession. Read it well, when I at last am sleeping. It’s a story of those who always loved you. Your mother gave her life for you then gave you to my keeping.”
“Then Fantine, whom death could not keep, comes to him. This is a promise to you. This is why we’re so moved by this story. This is what we have to look forward to,” Ortberg said.
At this moment, the pastor’s voice shakes as he read the interchanging sentences between Fantine, Cosette’s mother, and Valjean
“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,” Fantine said.
“Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory,” Valjean said.
“Take my hand; I’ll lead you to salvation. Take my love, for love is everlasting,” Ortberg read.
“And remember, the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God.” Ortberg pointed out that this same sentence Valjean said can be found in the book of Genesis in the story of Jacob and Esau, the brothers who hated each other.
“They wanted to kill each other. Then, after many, many years, grace comes to Jacob, and grace comes to Esau, and they’re reconciled. When they are reunited, Jacob says to Esau, ‘For to see your face is like seeing the face of God…’
Ortberg then explained the Les Miserables' song of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" through the Biblical context.
“Then come these words, and they're our words. They can be yours through this man, Jesus. ‘Do you hear the people sing lost in the valley of the night?’ (‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…‘) ‘It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light. For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies.’ (‘I am the Light of the world,’ Jesus said.)
“’Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.’ This is the promise. ‘They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord.’ Our story, the great story begins in a garden and will come back to a garden. ‘They will walk behind the plough-share. They will put away the sword. The chain will be broken, and all men will have their reward. Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?’ We are the people who sing, and what we sing is the gospel, because grace comes.”