“So here you are!”
3 April 2005
Texts: Matt. 18:21-35, Genesis 45
I begin with a familiar, I trust, story--a compelling story in a day when justice is such a passionate fury that many, knowing nothing of forgiveness or compassion, are willing to crush one another. I wish to summon up Les Miserables--the epic tale of redemption told by Victor Hugo. The title of my sermon comes from the redemption scene between Jean Valjean and the bishop whose trust Jean violated by stealing the church’s silver. “So here you are!” exclaims the Christ-infused saint, “I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?” See what there is here! There is welcome and delight and redemption. We are talking about the bishop’s reaction to a man so hardened by nineteen years of prison time for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family, that no one else would take him in. Life was cruel, inhospitable. Innkeepers, those we assume to be professionals in hospitality, wouldn’t welcome this poor man, wouldn’t even give him a room. He seemed so dark, so dangerous a character even in the terror of the French Revolution. What genius there is in Hugo! He summons up for those who are biblically literate a profound religious longing, a longing for room in the inn even in atheistic French culture. (Let us recall, according to Scripture, that Mary and Joseph, who were far from dangerous and dark, were also refused. The busy census focused world of Bethlehem had no time for them, no place for Him, the Christ child: the summation of all that is good in creation, the vessel and emissary of divine love.) This makes the incident work on us deeply--it’s about the fear of exclusion from the family of man, shunning, exclusion and consignment to social death. But the bishop not only welcomes Jean with delight, he gifts him. He next burdens, or entrusts Jean with wealth. “Did you forget to take them?” Such love birthed in a grateful, holy heart--though culturally despised--there can be no lesser explanation, Christian love works a miracle here. This saintly man honors Jean Valjean perhaps for no other reason than that God made him, gifted him with life. Graciousness expressed from one grateful sinner‘s heart to another‘s.
Forgetfulness is another key issue here. Let me pretend to be that bishop and so play that scene to you this way: My dear Jean, a gift of God who is therefore my delight, have you forgotten who you truly are? I yet see, buried deep inside you, way under the bitter painful years, the earnest, if not honest provider you sought to be. I am here, at the opening of your tomb, with you, lying inside senseless and battered, and I am calling you forth. Come forth, come here to me, Jean. “Do not forget, do not ever forget that you promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.” Christ has commanded us, “Love one another as I have loved you.” The bishop succeeds in doing just that. He loves an ex-convict, a man so into his darkness that he was yet a dangerous thief, a violent man who trusted no one. Love one another because it is your nature in Christ, your new nature, your redeemed nature to do so. Love one another because of what is in yourself. Forget about the other person, neighbor or enemy--forget about his charm, wit or good looks (none of these have the scent of eternity on them!) and equally forget about his foulness, stupidity or grossness and your own personal injury. So, die to self. Then, love for the sake of the love wherewith you were loved and you will fulfill the second greatest commandment.
There is a grace that runs contrary to the lust for revenge that drives our fallen flesh. That’s the grace we want, which we all need. When Jesus tells the parable of the two debtors (Matt. 18:21-35), we may find it fairly easy to relate to the controlling fact of our indebtedness, the ten thousand talents--roughly $10,000,000 in silver by weight, but worth much more in buying power!--but it is not so easy to get in touch with our bondage to money, our earth-boundedness, our fundamental ingratitude. By this I mean, “the grab your neighbor by the throat” and demand repayment of a day’s wages and that immediately after having been forgiven such an immense debt! Jesus wanted his listeners horrified by the man’s stunningly wicked behavior, his stupid ingratitude. But aren’t we truly as wretched as this picture depicts? We tend to take grace for granted for us--and we likewise tend to want justice for our neighbor, especially our debtors. In terms of Les Miserables it is the detective in us that drives us--Jalvert--there is a hardness in us, a black and white form of lovelessness that must be broken, driven out, slain. Must be, I say, for pity’s sake--for this is the outcome of grace, of freely extended forgiveness, or Christ’s love. The real offense in Jesus’ parable is the lovelessness, the drive for vengeance that can, if we do not surrender it up, destroy us. Inspector Jalvert ends up drowning himself in the River Seine because he cannot make the leap to grace--Jean on the other hand is transformed by grace. He becomes a source of life, justice with mercy, a defender of the defenseless simply for the sake of the love with him. He becomes, in a word, very like the bishop who first loved him and who was Christlike.
This, too, is the genius of Shakespeare in The Tempest. It is the case, that Prospero, the wronged and exiled duke of Milan, determines in his heart to forgive regardless of the character of those who wronged him. He forgives for forgiveness’ sake. That’s the ticket. That’s what Christ is asking of us. It doesn’t matter that some of those forgiven do not seek it. It doesn’t matter that some are unworthy of it and may profit nothing from the gift of it. Prospero has found the power of forgiveness and, as a result, he is quite willing to give up his strange art, his magic, his powers of conjuring and the like for the real thing, for the real power to make a lasting change in this world. And that power is available to every Christian, high and low, young and old! And that is good news indeed.
Our enemy is very subtle. Listen, love worketh obedience. Love expresses obedience. Christ loves us, but we cannot love as He loves. Nevertheless, He commands us to love one another in imitation of His love, by way of reaching after His kind of loving. It is a startling fact that God is never called our “friend” in scripture--we may be friends of God, but God remains God. Another startling fact is that the language of “receiving Jesus as our personal Savior” doesn’t occur in Scripture either. We do accept “personally” the offer of salvation, but Jesus isn’t personal as we are personal. He is personal as the Christ, our Creator and Redeemer always. We are finite creatures, He is not finite--from everlasting to everlasting He is Lord--we cannot even begin to understand what being personal means to God! And yet this we know, that God “loves” us because it is His nature to love. Love is one of His many perfections. Dare I say, by contrast, love is mostly one of our imperfections? It is true. We are called to love as He loves--we are commanded to love with His love. In a way that makes things both easier and more difficult. Easier, because if we disengage ourselves from fleshly entanglements (from such things as personality, charm, wealth and position in this world--the lesser things of creation), we are freed to engage ourselves in the spiritual, the eternal and everlastingness of life. These unseen things of faith Paul calls, with the other apostles the things which are above; they are our proper heavenly obsessions. The man who is fixed on the Spirit will not be subject to the demands of his own flesh--he will be a free man indeed. That’s what Jesus tried to picture for Peter in this superb parable.
Well, beloved, what does a free man look like? He looks like the bishop. Subsequently, he looks like Jean Valjean replicating the love of Christ among the poor and oppressed of Paris, caring and compassionate, a man who has honestly died to self, to gain, to advantage and exploitation. Or, he looks like Prospero who rises above the petty ambitions of his enemies, who transcends the instinct to murder and avenge himself. Finally, he looks like Joseph of whom we read this morning in Genesis 45. When reunited with his treacherous brothers, “he kissed all his brothers and wept on them.” (v. 15) Were his brothers the wretches they appear to be? You bet. And they are accountable for their misdeeds despite the fact that God “sent me before you to preserve life,” yes, indeed. It is a mystery of God that, even though He has His sovereign way with us, with all men and all things, we still retain our accountability. We remain responsible, moral choosers despite His sovereign will and plan! Thank goodness.
I want to close meditating with you on the astounding parallels between our fictional story and the historical account of Joseph. Oh, yes, I did say historical and I mean it. God revealed to Moses the true account of how Israel came to be in Egypt in the days of Joseph no less than the acts of Creation. Shall we note that both Jean Valjean and Joseph are ex-convicts? Both were imprisoned unjustly. And both had the choice to be bitter, or not. Jean chose to be bitter--at least initially. Joseph, so far as we know, chose not to be embittered. What a difference there is between the two . . . and yet, it takes one’s breath away to note this: both end up in the kingdom of grace! What hope there is in that! Joseph who made no missteps ends up in prison like Jean. Jean, who made many missteps and pays the price for his crime, also ends up in the same blessedness, a forgiver and a friend to even those who wronged him. Why? Because our sovereign God acted in both their lives! God helped Joseph thrive in adverse conditions just as he did Jean. And it is interesting to note the manner in which even silver, a precious metal, figures in both narratives. The silver cup of the governor of Egypt becomes the means of redemption for Israel. No, it didn’t look that way at first, but it turns out right. Similarly, the bishop’s silver becomes the means of redemption in a life doomed to incarceration and suffering otherwise. But, most marvelously, there is the common theme of delighted welcome. “So here you are, my brothers! So, here you are in Egypt after all, how wonderful! How delighted I am to see you! Here, let me give you ten donkeys laden with the best of Egypt and riches and wealth. Now go and become honest men!” I know that this last directive is implicit rather than explicit; but it is based on the introductory scene found in chapter 42 where the ten brothers are first recorded as coming to buy food. Joseph accuses them of being spies (v. 9) The brothers respond, “No, my lord, but your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man; we are honest men, your servants are not spies.” (v. 11). If they were honest men, they had changed some since they sold their brother into slavery and lied to Joseph’s father, Israel, saying that he had been killed by a “wild beast devoured him.” (37:20). As in the case of Terri Shiavo where terribly “legal” means have used to end an innocent person’s life through starvation—we must pray for all those involved. We must pray that those who intend evil will be held accountable and we must pray that they wake up to the purposes of God, to true mercy and grace. The narrative of Joseph extends from chapters 37--50, a fairly extensive and detailed portion of Scripture—how powerfully it speaks to our days and our lives. Joseph’s brothers are so wired towards complaining and suspicion and revenge themselves that in spite of years of kindness by Joseph, they still fear the consequences which might well have come from a less godly man: “What if Joseph should bear a grudge against us and pay us back in full for all the wrong we did him!” And Joseph’s immortal reply was: “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place?” In a word, am I God that I should judge you? “And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. Do you not see Christ in that? I do.
And that is the note that I want to close on: God wants to preserve many people alive. It is again our bent to think of safety, or to think of protecting people from death, or even from the judgment after death. But that is not the force of the word “alive” here. No, God wants us alive, fully alive now. It is His purpose that we have life and that abundantly, not merely that we escape eternal punishment. That is the point of the bishop’s intervention: he quickens Jean to life. Oh, that all of God’s people had a vision to do that more and more. Oh, that we, as God’s ambass-adors of reconciliation, would avoid judging and condemning, avoid a censorious spirit and instead see the promise within, the honest man in the making, the saint, the hero of faith, the dreamer, or a potential brother or sister in Christ. That is pure loving. How often the cynical world seems to be bent on persecution, on crushing the dreamer, throwing them into a pit because of anger, or jealousy, or cruelty. We are not to be like that. And lest we forget, we need to read redemptive stories like Les Miserables, we need to attend performances of The Tempest because these imaginative tales picture redemption for us. God, in His mercy, has planted in the wider culture these traces of His grace. Taken with study of scripture, they enhance our sense of wonder and praise; no one grounded in God’s word need be fearful of great literature, novels or plays—indeed our knowledge of the truth helps us understand these things best. Delight, wonder, redemption and welcome . . . what biblical things these are!
Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world and He didn’t come into us that we should condemn either. Rather, we are to take higher ground--like Prospero on the promon-tory rising above the storm below, the cruel passions and evil machinations of those who live no higher than who’s on top, and who’s got what! We should master the circumstances like the Christ-infused bishop: “So here you are! How delighted I am to see you. Did you forget to take the candlesticks as well?” Or, like Joseph, we might put kisses on those who betray us and weeping for joy to see one another back in our lives. Or, more sedately perhaps, we can live so freely as to reassure others with kind words and, wishing them well, express Christ to them in fresh and pertinent ways: Oh, if Christ has made you free, you are free indeed! We exclaim, “How can I serve you? What can I do to help you become the honest person you were designed to be? How can I love you with the enlivening and restorative love of Christ?” And if forgiveness is required, how can I forgive as Christ forgave so that you might leave this encounter more alive and free? The most wonderful aftermath of Easter is this: to offer resurrection life to all because we have been raised with Him! And we, being grateful, pass it on.