As Easter was approaching I remembered how Nancy and I liked to watch the movie “Les Miserables”. Victor Hugo’s literary masterpiece, which was written in 1862, is still a story that resonates with readers and audiences 156 years later. It has been adapted to movies, and to stages from Broadway to high schools (in fact one of my favorite performances for obvious reasons was put on by my son’s high school where he played in the pit orchestra).
The story centers around a British ex-convict in the early 1800’s name Jean Valjean. Jean has been released from prison where he has spent nearly 20 years in hard labor for stealing a piece of bread to feed his starving sister. Upon his release, a bitter man by now, a priest takes him in. Jean’s bitterness and hardness of heart leads him to steal silver from Bishop Myriel. The authorities catch up with Jean Valjean and bring him back to Bishop Myriel with the bag of stolen goods. In one of the most amazing parts of the story, Bishop Myriel convinces the authorities that the items were not stolen; rather he gave them to Jean Valjean. To add to the amazement, the bishop orders his wife to get the candlesticks to add to Jean Valjean’s bag of silver, as the authorities stand bewildered. After the authorities leave, Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean have this very powerful exchange where Myriel tells Valjean that his life has been spared for God, and that he should use money from the silver candlesticks to make an honest man of himself.
When I think about this part in the story there is a part of me that thinks that the Bishop is being taken advantage of. Valjean needs to experience justice because he had stolen from the hands that had shown mercy and kindness. Looking at it from Valjean’s perspective my heart hurts for him. He has truly experienced the freeing power of grace and mercy for the first time in a long time.
That’s the nature of grace and mercy. It’s both amazing and powerful. When God gives His people grace or mercy, it makes no sense yet it seems to have the power to make a drastic change in them.
Each year, the Israelites celebrated the most holy of days on their calendar. It was the Day of Atonement, known today as Yom Kippur. This day comes ten days after their New Year and is followed by nine days of reflection, confession, and repentance. The Day of Atonement was to be a day of judgment on sin; a day when the wrath of God would be exercised on what was unforgiven. To solve this problem God placed two goats between the people and the impeding judgment on their rebellious sin. One goat would be slaughtered on the altar and the sins of the people would be placed on the head of that goat. The second goat would be driven into the wilderness as a symbol of God banishing their sin from the people. This and many other sacrifices were done year after year to atone for the sins of the people.
The Good News of Easter is that the blood of Jesus was shed for the sins of many. “For Christ also suffered[a] once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit…” (1 Peter 3:18 ESV).
The truth of the matter is that we have all stood after being “caught with our bag of silver” deserving judgment and punishment. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:1-5 ESV).
Mercy has come in the person of Jesus Christ. He stepped between us and punishment. We can celebrate Easter with great joy and thanksgiving. Perhaps Jesus would rewrite Myriel’s powerful line that he said to Jean Valjean from:
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I have ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now give you back to God.”
to: “My brothers and sisters, you no longer belong to evil. With my blood, I have bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now you are children of God.”
Spend some time reflecting on Easter by reading and meditating on Psalm 103. This is a beautiful, worshipful, response to God’s amazing mercy and grace given to us.