Les Miserables-The Gospel At Center
After more than 14,000 performances by twenty-four different theatre companies around the world, “Les Miserables” has become the most popular play ever to appear on the theatre stage. This week the play is being performed in our city. It is worth seeing. When the playwrights and composers decided to adapt Victor Hugo’s classic novel to the stage in the form of a dramatic musical, they created a masterpiece. I always love watching plays, but I can tell you that “Les Miserables” is the most powerful and gripping play I have ever seen.
But what is the secret of its popularity? Some would say it is because of modern advertising and marketing techniques. Others would suggest it is because of its unique staging and musical score. But while I am confident that these things have contributed to the phenomenal success of “Les Mis”, I do not believe that they adequately explain the play’s astonishing appeal. I believe that the principal reason for the play’s popularity is its affirmation of the hope that exists in the hearts of all humankind, its declaration that the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ is stronger than the world’s hatred and evil, and its proclamation that it is in the serving of others that we find our greatest joy. In a time when Christianity is either ignored or ridiculed in the arena of arts, entertainment, and the media, “Les Miserables” proves a glorious exception to the rule. Quite frankly, it puts the Gospel of Jesus Christ at center stage, so clearly that you cannot miss it, so winsomely that you cannot ignore it, and so powerfully that you cannot resist it. Let me try to spell it out for you…
The play is an affirmation of the hope that exists in the hearts of all humankind.
It is the story of a man named Jean Valjean, who is sentenced to prison for 19 years because he stole a loaf of bread to feed some hungry children. Upon his release from prison, he finds that his criminal record condemns him to be an outcast and he can find no work. So he steals again in order to live. A police inspector named Javert is assigned the task of tracking down Jean Valjean and jailing him once more. Valjean then attempts to rob a kindly bishop, stealing the bishop’s silver candlesticks. The bishop astonishes Valjean by not only refusing to press charges, but actually giving the candlesticks to Valjean, saying to him: “You are forgiven.”
In that moment, Jean Valjean is converted. Overwhelmed by the bishop’s act of loving grace, Valjean declares that he will never be the same. He commits himself to the faith and he pledges himself to love as he has been loved by Christ and by Christ’s man from whom he has received forgiveness. He takes a new name, a new identity, and a new way of living. He becomes successful in business by treating his employees fairly and generously. He rescues a man involved in an accident. He adopts the child of a prostitute who is dying—the child’s name is Cosette. He keeps finding ways to be loving toward other people.
All the while, however, he is being hunted and haunted by the policeman, Javert, who is determined to get Valjean back into prison. As a trick, Javert arrests an innocent man and tells the newspapers that he has arrested Valjean and is going to put him on trial. Valjean is faced with a terrible dilemma. If he stays in hiding, an innocent man will go to prison. If he surrenders, he will go to prison. Guided by the mercy, grace, and love which he has received from God, Valjean surrenders himself to save the innocent man and he is sent to prison. Later, he escapes, finds Cosette, and takes her to hide on the back streets of Paris. They are present
there when the poor of Paris suddenly rise up in rebellion against the wealthy and powerful people who continually oppress them.
Amongst those rebels is a young man named Marius, who falls in love with Cosette. At first Valjean opposes the relationship because he is reluctant to let Cosette go. Ultimately, the power of his own love prevails and he prays for Marius who is caught up in the battle. Then Valjean goes to the barricades himself. The fight is raging. There at the barricades, he chances to meet his old nemesis, Inspector Javert, who has made his life miserable. He has the chance to kill Javert but he sets him free instead, yet one more reflection of the grace and forgiveness which has been granted to him.
He also rescues the wounded Marius and carries him to safety. The effort is too much for him; he collapses in the throes of death. As Jean Valjean’s life ebbs away, he tells Cosette for the first time the story of his life—and then he passes from the earth to heaven where, as the play puts it, “the chains will never bind him and all his grief at last will be behind him.” And so ends the story of a man who because he was loved by God could love others even to the point of sacrifice, and who because he was forgiven by God could gain the hope and glory of heaven.
“Les Miserables” captures the crowds and captures the applause because it teaches once again the lesson the world has never learned but has never quite been able to forget—that there is an unconquerable hope planted by God in every human heart. That’s the affirmation “Les Miserables” puts at center stage.
But the play is also a declaration that the sacrificial love of Jesus is stronger than the world’s hatred and evil.
In Matthew 23, Jesus delivers a stinging denunciation of the Pharisees for their unyielding legalism, for their barely concealed hatred, and for the harshness and hardness toward others. He makes it plain that we are called to be a people of love—a people who love God and who love our neighbors like Jean Valjean loved.
I know, it seems absurd to talk about love in a world where violence and war and hatred and injustice scream at us from the daily headlines. It seems absurd to talk about love when there is even more evil hidden from the public view—that vice which still parades as virtue, those insinuations which are not yet indictments, that gossip which has not yet begun to bruise and crush. When we think of the evil in our world—both the hidden and the overt—it is not very conducive to thoughts of love.
Or make it more personal still. Look at what is down inside of you and me. Like the two brothers in a story I came across recently. They were rich, but they were also wicked. They lived profoundly sinful and selfish lives, but used their money to cover up the dark side of their lives. They even attended the same church and gave large sums of money to that church to bolster their image of goodness. Then the church called a young preacher who preached with zeal and courage. The church grew and started a building program. Now this young preacher was a man of keen insight and strong integrity, so he readily saw through the hypocritical lifestyle of the two brothers. Then one of the brothers died and the young pastor was to preach at the funeral. The surviving brother pulled the minister aside and said: “I am going to give you a check large enough to pay for your new building. All I ask is one favor. Tell people at the funeral that my brother was a saint.” The minister said that he would do what was asked, and he took the check and deposited it in the church’s account. The next day at the funeral, the young preacher stood in the pulpit and said: “This man was an ungodly sinner, wicked to the core. He was unfaithful to his wife, abusive to his children, ruthless in his business, and a hypocrite at church…but compared to his brother, he was a saint!” If we shine the light of truth into the dark places of our own lives, we shall find those things of which we are ashamed.
So we look at the ugliness in the world, both that which is obvious and that which is hidden, and we look at that of which we are ashamed in ourselves—and in the face of all that we ask: What could be more powerful than all of the world’s wrongness? Love. The love of God in Jesus Christ. The love that enabled Jean Valjean to triumph over all the wrongness in his life.
When Toyohiko Kagawa, the great saint of Japan, was still in his pagan life, he became seriously ill physically. In his room, alone, he heard a knock at the door. He cried out: “Do not come for I have a very contagious disease.” The immediate response was: “I am coming in anyway, for I bring the love of Jesus Christ, and it is more contagious than any disease.” That single sentence won Kagawa to Jesus Christ and Kagawa changed Japan. The contagion of God’s love in Jesus Christ continues to sweep across the face of the earth, stronger and greater than any wrongness the world has ever known. How does Paul put it? “We love because Christ first loved us.” Christ’s love is the most powerful thing in the world. That’s the declaration that “Les Miserables” puts at center stage.
And the play is also a proclamation that we find our greatest joy in life in serving others.
In Matthew 23, Jesus describes for us the ideal Christian life—and He does it in just 23 words! He says: “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” As “Les Miserables” unfolds, it becomes clear that Jean Valjean found his greatest and most abiding joy in meeting the needs of others. And because he so humbled himself in this life, in the end he was exalted to glory. He gave without counting the cost. He served without expecting anything in return. He was a big man for only one reason: Jesus Christ gave him a big heart and a big spirit.
I never see the play or listen to its songs without remembering some words Albert Einstein wrote in a letter to a friend. He wrote: “How strange is our situation here on earth. Each of us comes for a short time not knowing exactly why. The only thing we do know is that we are here for the sake of others.” That’s the essence of noble service and sacrifice. And what does it say to us in our time? Well, our government recently announced that 14% of our people now live below the poverty line, and the number has increased by 2 million just in the last year. 17% of the children of America now live in poverty. We tend to think that poverty is naked, hungry sick children in some other part of the world. Not so. The poor are all around us here, and we are called by the Christ whose name we bear to be of service to such ones. We are called, as the play put it, to help “the wretched of the earth keep climbing to the light.” We cannot stand aside. We’ve got to join in this crusade!
If you follow the sport of professional golf, as I do, you will remember the name Rpberto de Vicenzo. He was from Argentina and achieved international fame for his golfing skill. What you may not remember is that on one occasion after winning a tournament, he picked up the trophy and the winner’s check for $25,000 and headed toward his car to leave the course. He was approached by a somber, sad-eyed young woman who said to him: “It’s a happy day for you, but it’s a sad day for me. I have just come from the hospital where the doctors told me that my little girl has cancer and needs emergency surgery or she will not live another month. I have no money and no insurance.” Before she could say another word, the great Roberto de Vicenzo took out a pen, endorsed his winner’s check, put it in the woman’s hand and said: “Take the money and do what’s best for your baby.” Several of the other golfers saw what happened and they became suspicious. They checked into the story and found it was a hoax. De Vicenzo’s friends then came back to him and said: “Roberto, that young woman was a phony. Yes, she’s poor, yes, she has a little baby girl. But the little girl is not sick at all. The woman tricked you out of thousands of dollars.” Roberto de Vicenzo looked at his friends, smiled and said: “Do you mean that there is no sick baby? Her little girl doesn’t have cancer? Why that’s the best news I’ve heard all week.” With that, he turned and walked away.
You see, Roberto de Vicenzo understood the meaning of unconditional, sacrificial service to others. He gave without counting the cost, served without expecting anything in return, and that gave him his greatest joy. Where did he learn that? He learned it from Jesus—the Jesus who said: “He who is greatest among you will be the servant of all.” That’s the proclamation which “Les Miserables” puts at center stage.
Perhaps how you can understand why I say that “Les Miserables” puts the Gospel of Jesus Christ at center stage. To see it, to experience it is to be moved to the point of tears. For it calls us to choose Jesus Christ as Valjean chose Him, and to obey Jesus Christ as Valjean obeyed Him. That kind of hoping and loving and serving in life is not easy. Sometimes it is rebuffed, refused, even ridiculed. But near the end of the play there comes a magnificent moment as Jean Valjean is dying. There is a song sung there which captures both the essence of the play and the message of this sermon. The words are these:
Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
My friends, this world needs people like Jean Valjean who will walk as Jesus walked, who will forgive as Jesus forgave, who will care as Jesus cared, who will serve as Jesus served, and who will love as Jesus loved. The only question is:
Will you be one of them?
Will you join in His crusade?