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Victor Hugo called his masterpiece Misérables, a religious work. So it is. The story echoes the gospel message at nearly every turn.

The main character, Jean Valjean, has been beaten hard by the cruel twists of fate. He has seen the sham of hypocrisy on all sides. So he casts the name of the Lord to the ground like a curse. What does God know of him, and what does it matter?

Imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his family, and resentenced by the vindictive will of his jailer, Jean Valjean finally manages to escape. On his first night of freedom, he stays with a bishop, who treats him well. But behind Jean Valjean’s thankful mask is the cunning face of a thief, for the bishop has many valuables.

In the early morning hours, Jean Valjean steals away with some silver plates. And when his suspicious appearance brings him under arrest, he is forced to face the bishop again, charged with new crimes.

Then the miracle of grace occurs. For in Jean Valjean’s eyes the bishop sees something that begs forgiveness and hopes for mercy. Instead of taking revenge, the bishop declares that the silver dishes were a gift to Jean Valjean. In fact, he says, Jean Valjean forgot to take the two silver candlesticks he had also given him.

In an instant, the bishop declares Jean Valjean innocent and gives him back his life. But with this gift of forgiveness, he commissions Jean Valjean to bring Christ to others. The rest of Jean Valjean’s life becomes a testimony of one who is made new in the grace of divine love. He becomes what he was meant to be.

Not only that, but Jean Valjean spends the rest of his life helping his young charge, Cosette, find love and a good marriage. The redeemed becomes the redeemer. The one who has seen the light becomes the light of life for others. And the glory of God spreads.

Isaiah 6:1-8 and Psalm 29
William Beebe, the naturalist, used to visit fellow nature-lover Theodore Roosevelt. Often, after an evening of good conversation at Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill home, they would walk across the lawn in the darkness. They would look up at the stars, point out the constellations, and carry on a conversation something like this: “There’s the spiral galaxy of Andromeda! Did you know it was as large as our own Milky Way? Over a hundred billion stars. And every one of them is larger than the sun. 750,000 light-years away. And there are a hundred million more galaxies like it out there!”

The numbers would get larger, the facts and figures more spectacular. Eventually they would shuffle on in silence, lost in wonder. Finally, Teddy Roosevelt would say, “Now I think we are small enough. Let’s go to bed!”

“Creation was the greatest of all revolutions,” said G. K. Chesterton. When young Anne Frank was hidden in an Amsterdam attic during World War II, fearful of the dreaded Nazi revolution and longing for a day in the park with her friends, she wrote this note in her diary: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be.”

Even in the harshest of storms, as David notes in Psalm 29, the magnificent power of God is displayed. After Sir Ernest Shackleton returned from one of his Antarctic expeditions, he told of the intense suffering he and his two partners had endured: extreme pain, numbing cold, haunting starvation, consuming exhaustion. When rescued, barely alive, all they had left were two axes and a logbook.

“But in memories we were rich,” said Shackleton. “We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We have seen God in his glory!”

There are only a handful of truly great words in the English language, says one scholar. They are the words without synonyms, the words that can’t be explained, the words that sound like what they mean. And one of those words is glory.

Only the hushed whisper of that word can describe God, says David. Only the thundering roar of that term can tell what happens when God passes by. And only the shout of that cry fits the emotions that erupt in God’s presence: “In his temple all cry Glory! Glory!”

But bright lights can dim eyesight, and the constant bombardment of God’s glory can turn our timid spirits toward the dark places. One person has put it this way. Imagine a family of mice who lived all their lives in a large piano. Music filled their piano-world, swelling all the dark spaces with sound and harmony. At first the mice were impressed by it. They drew comfort and wonder from the thought that there was someone close to them -- though invisible to them -- who made the music.

They loved to think of the great player whom they could not see. Then one day a daring mouse climbed up part of the piano and returned very thoughtful. He had found out how the music was made. Wires were the secret; tightly stretched wires of graduated lengths that trembled and vibrated. The mice had to revise all their old beliefs: none but the most conservative could any longer believe in the unseen player.

Later, another explorer carried the explanation further. Now the secret was hammers, numbers of hammers dancing and leaping on the wires. This was a more complicated theory, and it showed that the mice lived in a purely mechanical and mathematical world. The unseen player came to be thought of by the mice as a myth.

But the pianist continued to play. And those, like Isaiah in the Temple one day, who hear the music cry, “Glory!”

Romans 8:12-17
The story of God’s righteousness as grace and goodness begins with Abraham, according to Paul in his Romans letter. God has always desired an ever-renewing relationship with the people of this world, creatures made in God’s own image. Paul describes God’s heart of love in 3:21-31, using illustrations from the courtroom (we are “justified” -- 3:24), the marketplace (we receive “redemption” -- 3:24), and the Temple (“a sacrifice of atonement” -- 3:25). Moreover, while this ongoing expression of God’s gracious goodness finds its initial point of contact through the Jews (Abraham and “the law” and Jesus), it is clearly intended for all of humankind (3:27-31).

This is nothing new, according to Paul. In fact, if we return to the story of Abraham, we find some very interesting notes that we may have glossed over. “Blessedness” was “credited” to Abraham before he had a chance to be “justified by works” (4:1-11). In other words, whenever the “righteousness of God” shows up, it is a good thing, a healing hope, an enriching experience that no one is able to buy or manipulate. God alone initiates a relationship of favor and grace with us (4:1-23). In fact, according to Paul, this purpose of God is no less spectacular than the divine quest to re-create the world, undoing the effects that the cancer of sin has blighted upon us (Romans 5). It feels like being reborn (5:1-11). It plays out like the world itself is being remade (5:12-21). This is the great righteousness of God at work!

Now Paul gets very practical. Although we might think that we would jump at the opportunity to find such grace and divine favor, Paul reminds us that our inner conflicts tear at us until we are paralyzed with frustration and failure (Romans 6–7). Sometimes we deny these struggles (6:1-14). Sometimes we ignore these tensions (6:15-7:6). Sometimes we grow bitter in the quagmire of it all (7:7-12). And sometimes we even throw up our hands in despair (7:13-24).

Precisely then, says Paul, the power of the righteousness of God as our bodyguard is most clearly revealed. Thankfully, God’s righteousness grabs us and holds us, so that through Jesus and the Holy Spirit we are never separated from divine love (Romans 7:25-8:39). Hope floods through us because we know Jesus and what he has done for us (8:1-11). Hope whispers inside of us as the Holy Spirit reminds us who we truly are and whose we will always be (8:12-27). Hope thunders around us as God’s faithfulness is shouted from the heavens right through the pages of history (8:28-39): “…we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height or depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

John 3:1-17
“Light” and “darkness” explain everything, in John’s gospel. Right up front (1:1-14), John helps us think through life and values and purpose in a stark dualism that is engaged in a tug-of-war for everything and everybody. This comes to personal expression in today’s gospel reading. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness of night, only to be serenaded by Jesus’ fine teachings about walking in the light. Later, the blind man of chapter 9 is actually the only one who can truly see, according to Jesus, because all of the sighted people have darkened hearts and eyes. Still further along, Judas will enter the room of the Last Supper basking in the light of the glory that surrounds Jesus (chapter 13), but when he leaves to do his dastardly deed of betrayal, the voice of the narrator ominously intones “and it was night.” Evening falls as Jesus dies (chapter 19), but the floodlights of dawn rise around those who understand the power of his resurrection (chapter 20). Even in the extra story added as chapter 21, the disciples in the nighttime fishing boat are bereft of their netting talents until Jesus shows up at the crack of dawn, tells them where to find a great catch, and is recognized by them in the growing light of day and spiritual insight. Darkness, in the gospel of John, means sin and evil and blindness and the malady of a world trying to make it on its own apart from its Creator. Light, on the other hand, symbolizes the return of life and faith and goodness and health and salvation and hope and the presence of God.

Through this metaphor, John shows us that salvation itself is a kind of re-creation. Using a deliberate word play to bind the opening of the gospel to the sentences that start Genesis, John communicates that the world once made lively by the Creator has now fallen under the deadly pall of evil, and needs to be delivered. The only way that this renewal can happen is if the Creator re-injects planet Earth with a personal and concentrated dose of the original light by which all things were made. Although many still wander in blindness or shrink back from the light like cockroaches or rodents who have become accustomed to the inner darkness of a rotting garbage dump, those to whom sight is restored are enabled to live as children of God once again. So Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born again.”

This is at the heart of the “gospel of the gospel” in this famous and familiar passage. The New Testament era is merely the Old Testament mission of God revived in a new form. Jesus, the Logos, comes to earth and “tabernacles” among us (see John 1:14), just as the Creator had done when covenanting with Israel, and commissioning her to become a witness to the nations. Furthermore, those who truly recognize Jesus for who he is, like Nicodemus, see in him the “glory” of the Father. This is a direct link to the Shekinah glory light of God that filled the tabernacle and the temple, announcing the divine presence. The mission of God continues, but it will now be experienced through the radiance that glows in all who are close to Jesus. The “tabernacle” that houses the glory of the divine presence is on the move into the world through this “only begotten Son of God” (1:14) and all who become “children of God” (1:12) with and through him.

We don’t know, from this passage, whether Nicodemus fully understood these things. But he showed up at Jesus' crucifixion (John 19:39) to honor the one who had brought him out of the darkness into the light.

Anne Sexton wrote a volume of poetry describing her religious journey as The Awful Rowing Toward God. Faith is difficult, she said in her poems, not so much because God wants it to be that way, but because other elements including our own hearts conspire against us on the way.

In her concluding poem, “The Rowing Endeth,” Anne imagined herself docking her spiritual boat at the island of God’s home. There she sat down to play poker with God, attempting to win access to God’s wealth. In the heat of the game she knew she held a winning hand, laying down a straight royal flush! Even God couldn’t beat that!

But God only smiled and spread down a hand of five aces! The joke was on Anne, and they laughed together in great gusto, echoing grace to the corners of heaven.

It was a strange parable that Anne Sexton penned, yet one rich with biblical meaning. We are forever playing games with God, trying to win his chips and bankroll his mercy. Still, sly and wily as we might be, God always manages to pull out a trump card we never expected. Sometimes it even seems like God isn’t playing by the rules (our rules, of course!). Yet when God shows the divine hand, and takes the game, it is only to share the winnings with us in lavish ways we didn’t deserve.

Anne’s picture is a delightful portrait of grace. Grace, as many have written, is very difficult to define. Frederick Buechner said that most tears are grace, as is the smell of rain and having somebody love you. Lewis Smedes said that grace is amazing because it works against our common sense. Inside we know that we are too weak, too harassed, and too human to change for the better, and life shouts that we are caught in a rut of fate or futility; yet God somehow gives us a tomorrow better than we could have chosen for ourselves, were we to have the strength to make it happen. That’s grace.

A friend of mine knows it too well. Recently she took me out to lunch, and spilled another tale of woe. Life has been very unkind to her. Few of us could survive with the hand she has been dealt. Even when she tries to play with the cards she has, the numbers on them keep changing, and she has to start all over learning the game.

Three things have made it possible for her to keep going: friends who cared enough to look past her quirks and craziness, medications that kept her from winding up a bag-lady on the streets, and grace. At every corner in her life, just as the traffic was threatening her from both directions, God met her. God took her hand. God played a trump card and she had safe passage to the next corner.

Call it chance, if you will. Call it luck. Maybe it was all in the cards.

But then, with Anne Sexton, I believe in the one who dealt them. And in the one who holds five aces when needed.

Alternative Application (John 3:1-17)
The story of Madame Curie is more fascinating than most fictional novels. Born Polish to families that lost everything in the political uprisings of the nineteenth century, Marie found her identity at the University of Paris. She was married to Pierre, a man who treated her as an equal in scientific investigations, and together they shared a Nobel prize for the discovery of the causes of radioactivity. When Pierre was killed in a traffic accident, Marie was invited by the University to occupy his chair as the first female professor of the school. Marie went on to distinguish herself in many other ways, including naming two new-found elements (polonium and radium), achieving another Nobel prize, raising a daughter who would distinguish herself in scientific investigations and earn a Nobel prize of her own, and founding or equipping several research schools, even while running on the edge of personal scandal and international political intrigues.

But Madam Curie died in 1934 as a direct result of prolonged and unprotected exposure to the very substances she “gave” to the world. She loved to carry around with her test tubes of radioactive materials, remarking often about the lovely bluish-green glow they emitted.

There is a kind of allegorical parallel between Curie’s story and today’s gospel passage. It revolves around a report of eerie glowing that happens when people experience direct encounters with the divine. The outcomes, of course, bring life instead of death, but there is that mesmerizing “glow in the dark” quality about it all. Heaven’s radiance still shines in tangible ways from heaven, by way of Jesus, and through his body, the church.
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