As time permits, I’m very slowly working my way back through Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. It’s the second time I will have read it in my life (and probably the last !).
I recently read a chapter about the central character, Jean Valjean, the radically changed ex-convict who becomes the successful mayor of the town in which he lives. I believe the change he experiences in this novel is a powerful picture of the forgiveness and new life a person receives from Christ. The change leads Valjean to become an extremely generous, yet more reflective, person. Here’s a description, from the chapter I was reading, of one Valjean’s interesting habits in his new life. It seems a little morbid, yet somehow it made me chuckle inwardly :
When he saw a church-door draped in black he entered, seeking out funerals as other men seek out christenings. Widowhood and the afflictions of others appealed to his strongly compassionate nature ; he mingled with the mourners and the priests chanting round a coffin. It seemed that the words of the funeral psalms, with their vision of another world, were especially attuned to his thoughts.
Can you imagine a person who enjoys attending funerals … and just drops in when he sees one taking place ??
My own experience is that I’m finding to be true what I’ve heard some of my older friends describe over the years : As you grow older, you find yourself attending more funerals ! Yet, I, too, like Jean Valjean, have discovered that sometimes a funeral is one of the most uplifting events you can attend. Funerals cause us to reflect, evaluate, give thanks, and recalibrate for the future.
I was at a funeral yesterday in Columbia for a person who, along with her husband, had supported our family for many years while we served the Lord in Europe. The whole tenor of the service was one of joy and thankfulness ; emphasis was placed on the authenticity and humor this woman displayed throughout her life and on her simple yet profound faith in Jesus Christ.
Joy was mixed in with the sadness. Hope was the ultimate outcome of the service.
The pastor’s message was from John 14 where Jesus tells His disciples that He is going away. Imagine – the disciples had given up everything to follow Him ; now He says He’s leaving them. Peter practically rebukes Him, yet Jesus responds with these familiar words :
“Do not let your heart be troubled ; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms ; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).
Jesus has gone to prepare a dwelling-place so that one day we may all be with Him and with each other … forever ! Just try to imagine that ! One day you and I will be with Jesus. No longer will we simply read about and imagine Gospel characters who were with Him 2000 years ago – we will be with Him ourselves in person !
As I listened to the exposition of that passage at yesterday’s funeral, the thought crossed my mind that everything rests on those few words being true. If they aren’t true, then my friend who had died has no hope … and I have no real hope either.
But, we know the words are true. How do we know ? Because Jesus rose from the dead ! We are still confronted with having to make a decision about a man who rose from the dead. His resurrection seems to be a fact that pretty much the whole world is aware of and more/less admits is true. It permeates the history of the world of the past 2000 years. Lives changed for the better testify to its reality. No one has ever been able to disprove it. It is our hope and our joy.
Hope and joy …… subjects it seems we’ve been kicking around a lot at Emmanuel lately.
Like many of you, I would love to experience more joy in my life. I’ve been intrigued by Bart Larson’s Sunday messages in Isaiah in which he has emphasized God’s holy anger toward sin but also reminded us that the opposite of God’s wrath – what God really desires for us — is joy. God desires that we revel in his joy.
I wonder if, for you and me, our search for joy has been too often centered on the present.
We’re joyful when things go our way.
We’re joyful when life is easy, … as it is at times.
We think that if we had everything we wanted we would be full of joy. (I doubt it. I expect we would only find other things to worry or grumble about.)
I wonder if real joy is something we get a little taste of in the present but experience in greater and greater degree as we move toward the future – the joy of grasping that one day we will have passed the tests and finished the work of life, and we will finally encounter the Lord and the dwelling-place He has prepared for us.
As you may know, our family has been reading through the psalms around the breakfast table for the past year or so. There is so much of real life in the psalms – pain, distress, anger, questioning, … and joy. Finally, we’ve reached the five final psalms (146-150), all of which are marked with exclamations such as :
“Praise the Lord !”
“I will praise the Lord as long as I live !”
“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord !”
An old Scottish scholar introduced those psalms this way :
As we look forward from Psalm 146 we must allow ourselves a sigh of relief. So many psalms in this Song Book have been sad, have been the expression of doubt or disappointment, have been darkened by the wicked, have been cries of distress, have been calls for judgment, that to find at last a group of psalms so full of sunshine, so overflowing with joy, so trustful and hopeful, so restful and confident, is like moving into a new world. … Of course, in very many other psalms there has been sunshine and singing, flowers and fragrance, and much praise, but in this group only is there an almost cloudless sky, an almost waveless sea. The music rises with an almost constant swell until the melodious thunder of the final psalm which calls on everything that has breath to praise the Lord.”
(W. Graham Scroggie, The Psalms)
I’m looking forward to that day when such a cloudless sky will open before us, extending in all directions forever and ever. There is growing joy as we move forward with the Lord. It’s not all here now. But, we anticipate it – we feel it coming. And as Bart said last Sunday, in the meantime we can “relax and trust God.”
Let not your heart be troubled. In this life we seem to be mingled together around a coffin. But the destination of our journey is the bright shining joy of Jesus.
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