January, 2013

Les Misérables – Identity, Grace, and Adoption (part 3 of 3)

 

The themes of identity, grace, and adoption are woven through the story of Les Miserables. The grace shown to Jean Valjean has transformed his life. It has shaped his identity. Valjean now works to show this costly grace to those in need. In his mission of mercy, he comes upon Fantine, a former factory worker of his who has been forced into prostitution. Fantine is selling her body to provide for her child, Cosette. This sacrifice has destroyed Fantine and she is near death. Valjean promises to Fantine that he will care for this child: “[Cosette] shall live in my protection / Your child shall want for nothing. / And none shall ever harm Cosette as long as I am living.”

Jean Valjean then travels to the inn where Cosette is staying under the eye of the harsh and crooked Thenardier. Cosette is seen sweeping the floor, “There is a lady all in white / Holds me and sings a lullaby. / She’s nice to see and she’s soft to touch / She says, Cosette, I love you / very much. / I know a place where no one’s lost / I know a place where no on cries.” Valjean appears and promises to fulfill his vow, “I am here to help Cosette / And I will settle any debt you may think proper. / I will pay what I must pay / To take Cosette away….Cosette shall have a father now.” Cosette is rescued from her life as an orphan. She has been redeemed by the gracious act of one who would step into her situation, settle her debts, and bring her in as his own child.

When the Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of the benefits of redemption that a believer experiences in this life, it lists three; justification, adoption, and sanctification. Much is made today of justification and sanctification. And rightly so. These are hugely important doctrinal concepts. But adoption is often the orphaned doctrine. What is adoption? It is God’s act of grace wherein believers are made the children of God and given all the rights and privileges thereof (cf. WSC #34).

Justification is the legal perspective of our relationship with God. As sinners we stand guilty and condemned before a holy God. Christ’s work on the cross was a propitiation. It was a divine exchange. He who knew no sin became sin so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). We stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ not in the filth of our own rags. We are declared legally clear.

But adoption is the higher doctrine. In adoption we are not just made clean, but we are received and brought into the family of God. We are made heirs of all the rights, privileges, and blessings of God (Rom 8:17; Gal 4:7). We are declared to be the sons and daughters of God (John 1:12). Adoption stands as the greater doctrine because it relates not to our legal relationship but to our familial. We do not relate to God simply as Master. We relate to Him in a far more endearing and tender manner; that of Abba, Father. If you aren’t convinced that adoption is greater, think about the 46 orphans who will be left in the wake of Russia’s US adoption ban. Forty-six orphans have been legally declared as the children of adoptive parents. But the Russian government is preventing these adoptions from being finalized. Though declared legally clear these children may never experience the benefit of actually being adopted into a family. Justification without adoption is an abomination.

What are the benefits we experience as the adopted children of God? Adoption becomes the controlling thought of our Christian life. It is the basis of what we do. Jesus constantly framed life in relation to his Father and then called us “my brothers” (Matt 28:9-10; Jn 20:17-18). The Sermon on the Mount is an ethical framework for those who have God as their Father. It was never a legal system to merit God’s favor, but it is the pattern of life that is passed on from Father to child. Adoption is the basis for our prayers. How did Jesus teach us to pray? By saying, “Our Father…” (Mt. 6:9). And God answers the prayers of His children in the manner in which He knows is best (Mt 7:7-11). Adoption is the basis for our assurance. Institutionalized orphans often struggle with trust. They cannot believe that someone would love them as a son or daughter because know ever has. These kids have always had to grit it out for themselves. We are often the same way. We struggle with trust, because we don’t believe that God is our Father. But if we are adopted, then we have a Father. “Look at the birds of the air…your Father feeds them. Are you not more valuable than they?” (Mt 6:26). We can rest with assurance because he is our Father. We who were orphaned by sin are rescued by Christ, our elder brother. No longer do we live alone and frightened, but we hear the Father’s response as Cosette asked Valjean, “Will you be like a Papa to me?” “Yes, Cosette! / This is true! / I’ll be father and mother to you!”.

Les Misérables – Identity, Grace, and Adoption (part 2 of 3)

The story of Les Misérables is above all a story of grace. It is a story of favor lavished upon ones who are unworthy and the redemption which flows from it. Jean Valjean is a paroled criminal whose identity is shackled to a yellow slip of paper that labels him as prisoner “24601.” He stumbles into a churchyard on the verge of starvation and is taken in by a kind old Bishop. (The astute viewer will notice that in the film the Bishop is played by Colm Wilkinson who played Jean Valjean in the original Broadway production of Les Miserables. The recipient of grace is transformed into the giver of grace. For the record, I am not that astute viewer…but my wife was.) The Bishop sings, “There is wine here to revive you. / There is bread to make you strong. / There is a bed to rest till morning – / Rest from pain, and rest from wrong./” Jean Valjean is the “honored guest.”

That evening, Jean Valjean awakes from sleep and walks over toward the sleeping Bishop. Above the Bishop is the cupboard where the silver is stored. In a moment Valjean decides to steal it. He carefully picks out the silver and flees into the night. The next morning the door bursts open and Valjean is thrown down by two policemen. Valjean is broken and can not even look at the Bishop. The police speak, “Monsignor, we caught the thief / red-handed! He has the nerve to / say you gave him all this!” The Bishop responds, “That is right. / But my friend, you left so early, / You forgot I gave these also. / Would you leave the best behind?” The Bishop then holds out the two silver candlesticks. The police are stunned. Valjean is bewildered. The Bishop, looking at the broken man, sings, “But remember this, my brother – / See in this some higher plan…. / By the passion and the blood, / God has raised you out of / darkness – / I have bought your soul for God.

The paroled criminal stood condemned. He was guilty of his transgression. Jean Valjean was headed back to prison, likely for the rest of his life. He was a dead man walking. But then the Bishop intervenes. Be honest, how would you have responded if you were the Bishop? Would you have responded to Valjean’s thievery by giving him more? It boggles the mind. No sensible person would have done that. It is bewildering to us because we are Pharisees and legalists at heart. We want to operate on a quid pro quo basis. At the core of our sinful nature is an insatiable greed. Why did Eve take the fruit offered by the serpent? She thought God was holding out on her. Why did Saul rebel against God? Because the people sang of David’s glory more than his. Why were Ananias and Sapphira struck down in Acts 5? Because they lied to God so they could keep the money promised to him. At our sinful core is a belief that God does not love us and will not provide for us. At our core is a ravenous appetite for more.

Grace flips this on its head. Grace is the great reversal. In Ephesians 2:1-3 we are described as being dead in our trespasses and sins. We are dead men walking. But then Christ intervenes. While we were deserving of condemnation, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. The “obedience and satisfaction of Christ” (WCF XI.1) is credited to our account. And this comes at great cost to Christ. This is no cheap grace. Just as the Bishop endured the loss of all his silver to secure the freedom of Valjean, Christ endures in his person the penalty of our sin in order to secure our salvation. Grace is the antithesis of greed. Grace is the opposite of quid pro quo. Grace takes greed and fills its insatiable appetite with our true desire until it overflows.

Jean Valjean’s life is radically changed. He is no longer compelled by the greed of selfishness. The costly grace of the Bishop has gorged Valjean’s greed and transformed it to generosity. He lives out the generosity inherent in the imago Dei. Now he seeks to redeem the factory-worker turned prostitute, Fantine. He devotes himself to rescuing Fantine’s orphaned daughter, Cosette. He risks his life to save Cosette’s love, Marius. He gives mercy to his nemesis, Javert, when executing him would have been easy and expected. His life has been transformed by this radical power. It overflows in acts of costly grace.

How often do we miss this? How often do we languish as the legalist Javert? How often are we like Jean Valjean who was unwilling to receive grace when he first entered the church? Maybe more importantly, how often are we willing to be like the Bishop and lavish a radical and costly grace upon others? We are the unworthy recipients of grace who are called to lavish grace on other unworthy recipients. If we have believed the truth of the Gospel by repenting of our sins and turning to Christ by faith, then we should see this transformation in our lives. We should see our lives overflowing in acts of costly grace by embracing the higher plan because we have been bought by God.

 

Les Misérables – Identity, Grace, and Adoption (part 1 of 3)

Over our Christmas vacation we saw the recent film Les Misérables. This is the musical which was based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. Set against the backdrop of 19th century France, it is the story of police-inspector Javert’s dogged pursuit of an ex-prisoner, Jean Valjean. Intertwined with this narrative is Valjean’s adoption of the orphan Cosette and the attempts of the poor to stir up revolution. In the course of the film I was struck by three strands that seemed to weave their way through the entire story; Identity, Grace, and Adoption.

In the opening scene of the movie, prisoners labor on dock wall as they sing, “Look down, look down don’t look ’em in the eye.” The police-inspector Javert addresses one of these prisoners, “Now prisoner 24601. Your time is up and you parole’s begun.” The prisoner responds, “My name is Jean Valjean!” But the inspector will not address him as a person, Valjean is only a criminal and therefore only a number to Javert. He lacks a true identity.

Valjean is released for parole but everywhere he goes he must present his papers which indicate that he is a criminal. He had only stolen a mouthful of bread to feed his sister’s family, but now he is known simply as a criminal. No work. No lodging. No help for criminals. But then Valjean stumbles upon a small church. The Bishop welcomes Valjean into the church and feeds him. When Valjean is caught stealing the church’s silver, the Bishop responds with a sacrificial grace. This grace transforms Valjean. “What have I done? /Sweet Jesus, what have I done?/ Become a thief in the night/ Become a dog on the run…they gave me a number and murdered Valjean…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.” Valjean responds by shredding his parole papers and crying, “Another story must begin!” He leaves a new man, no longer just a number but a true person. He is a man with an identity.

Valjean’s triumph comes as he answered the question that comes to all of us, “Who are you?” Who are you? What is your identity? Throughout the film the characters find understanding and meaning only when they embrace their true identity. For Valjean redemption is complete when he is honest with his daughter Cosette about his past. For Javert rejection of his identity as a recipient of grace leads to his suicide. And this theme could also be explored through the lives of many other characters in the film.

Who are you? In Luke 3:38 Jesus’ genealogy is concluded with “the son of Adam, the son of God.” The climax of Jesus’ family tree is that he is the Son of God. This occurs right after Jesus has been baptized and a voice from heaven says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Who is Jesus? Clearly, he is the Son of God. But in Luke 4 Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness. The devil’s first words to Jesus, “IF you are the Son of God…” (Luke, 4:3, emphasis mine). IF. Was there any doubt about his identity? Luke has made it quite clear. Yet attacking the identity of Jesus was Satan’s first tactic. Satan’s first jab was to try to create doubt; to work in a wedge between Jesus’ identity as Son and God’s as Father. Jesus responded to the devil well because he was secure in his identity.

Who are you? What name do you take? Over time we are called many names. Some of them stick into our minds and adhere themselves like leeches to our identity. Stupid. Clumsy. Fat. Ugly. Poor. Worthless. Naughty. Sensitive. Butch. Quiet. Nice. Smart. Shy. These names get thrown around throughout our lives. Eventually we begin to believe them. With eyes down we become “24601.” This is not who God made us to be. Those who have repented of sin and turned to Christ by faith are the people of God. They are the sons and daughters of the Father. “And if children, then heirs – heirs of God, and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17).

How could this reality change our lives? For Valjean it was a complete catharsis. When he remembered that he wasn’t just a number but that he was Jean Valjean, another story began. His life was radically different. What would happen if you were able to believe, really believe, that in Christ you are forgiven and adopted? No longer does that name stick to your identity. No longer are you doggedly pursued by the ghosts of your past. You are free. By the grace of God you are redeemed and brought into the family of God. Your identity is now what it always should have been; a child of God.

 

New Sermon Series and Sunday School Series

This Sunday we will begin a new sermon series on the Gospel of Luke.
Join us as we look at Luke’s historical account of the person of Jesus.

We will also begin a new Sunday School Series on Islam and the Church.

A syllabus for the Sunday School series can be found here: Islam Syllabus – Spring 2013