As most in my congregation know, I am not a huge fan of sermonizing on High Feast Days. Sometimes, I think we serve a good purpose trying to open up the Scriptures for those given into our care. Sometimes, though, our words are simply a distraction. Palm Sunday, when we at St. Alban’s randomly assign parts in the Gospel narrative, is a wonderful example of when I think a pastor should keep his or her mouth shut! Of course, with schedules and health issues what they are, I realize that not everyone was able to make it to church Sunday. So, not everyone has entered Holy Week with that personal reminder that He came to accomplish what we could not--our salvation! So, what to do? With the recent release of Les Miserables, Karen and I have been introducing our older kids to the movie and its various themes, just as a number of parishioners have been watching it just to see what the hullaboo was about. There is a scene near the end of Les Miserables where Javert sings “I am the law and the law is not mocked . . . It is either Valjean or Javert.” Obviously, the celebration of Palm Sunday and our entrance into the liturgies of Holy Week cannot help but remind us that Jalvert’s observations are absolutely correct.
As I have been reflecting, we as a congregation these past couple months, we have certainly dealt firsthand with the hardness of the law, and as Christians we are always reminded by His Cross that the law given by God is never mocked. Some of us know the stories better than others. Since Christmas, we have had a woman, who finally escaped an abusive relationship thanks to the love and support of her family, face the horrid reality of cancer and death. Now, just when things were looking better for her children, their mother is dead and the law will be placing them back with the father. We have had a young man seek help for mental illness. Because his “levels were normal,” there was nothing our VA could do for him. When cops found him on the streets walking with a weapon, all they could do was commit him to a civilian hospital for 72 hours. The law let him go after that, even though he had begged for help and new he was “not right.” Now, he, too, is dead, and a family is grieving. We have had another man struggling with the demons of addiction and all its consequences under the law, which spent far more time on punishment rather than treatment, finally give up his fight. And those are just the lowest of the lowlights in our life together. When I begin to bring in some of the horror stories about the lack of job security or actual job loss, the fear caused by newly diagnosed diseases, and the hurt that each one of us have felt in our daily life, we know the truth of Javert’s statement. The musical might be fiction, but some of its truths are eternal. The law will not be mocked!
As Christians celebrating Palm Sunday, we know the absolute truth of Javert’s words. God’s is holy, righteous and just. Throughout the beginning of Scripture, human beings could not approach the Lord and see Him face to face. To see Him as sinners was to welcome death. Once Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree, they were forced from the Garden of Eden. Our ultimate spiritual ancestors, who once communed with God face to face, were cast out lest they be destroyed. Such was His radiance that Moses was forced to encounter Him first as a burning bush and then as a cloud. And still, the radiance of the Lord as a cloud was reflected in Moses’ face and terrified the Israelites. To face the holiness of God as a sinner was to face death. Other prophets, when they asked to see Him face to face, were reminded that they could not. Even the high priest of ISrael was limited as to when he could enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple. And the high priest had to wear a rope and tinkling bells because God takes sin that seriously (and maybe some high priests did not!).
All of that, of course, begins to change this week. God still takes sin every bit as seriously as He did in Genesis. Several times this week, we will read of the humiliation that Jesus faced, of the physical beatings that He took, of the blood that He shed, and of His death. You and I will enter into those events of Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago and remind ourselves of the cost of our sin and of the love that Jesus, the Christ, bore for us. It is truly Good News. God loved sinners like you and me enough that He was willing to enter history, keep His promises to our ancestors, and enable us to be imputed true righteousness.
To some outside us, Javert’s next words probably ring truest. “And my thoughts fly apart. Can this man be believed?” Can our sins truly be forgiven? Can our crimes be reprieved? Who has that authority? Who claims that power?
Thankfully, and mercifully, we know who claims the authority and we have witnesses to its truth. Though this week is often tough, as we spend a significant amount of liturgical time reminding ourselves of the cost of our sins (we are the crowd shouting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!), it does not end in darkness. In the end, God, who gave us the law and will not be mocked, ultimately paid the price for our sins just as He promised Abraham He would. And we know the truth of that promise because even the dark day of Good Friday was brightened by that brilliant light of Easter Sunday when God raised Christ from the dead and gave all authority to Him! Thousands saw Him before He ascended to make intercession on our behalf, and their stories encouraged others who, later, encouraged us.
Were that the entirety of the story, brothers and sisters, we would have reason enough to celebrate. But God is a God of abundance. Not only does He appear in the lives of those who came long before, but He comes even now to us. In each generation He raises up witnesses to His Gospel and sends them forth into the world to testify to the Truth. Our sins can be forgiven! Our crimes can be reprieved! I have met the Savior, and He has died for me!
To be sure, His death and Resurrection is not a magic wand. His death and Resurrection is not a silver bullet that eliminates all our woes. We have only to think of our individual and collective lives these past few months to recognize that truth. But, just as we know that God redeemed the death of His Son, Jesus our Lord, so, too, will He redeem our darkest nights. He will redeem whatever evil that raises its hand against us, if we claim Him as Lord. Even if death itself stretches out its arms to embrace us, He will cause the sun to rise on us again and let us see Him face to face. As the crowd reminds us at the end of that well-honored musical, “We will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord. We will walk behind the plowshare. We will put away the sword. The chain will be broken and all will have their reward!” That is His promise, and next week's empty tomb is the testimony of His power to accomplish His promise!
But, brothers and sisters, it is hard to accept such grace. As the musical reminds us, the cornerstone can cause us to stumble and fall or it can fall and crush us. At the risk of spoiling the movie for those unaware, what separates Javert from Valjean? One accepts the offer and claims its promise of new life. The other freely admits his heart is of stone, even though he is shown the exact same gift. The ends of their respective struggles could not be more different.