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Bethany Evangelical
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Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Baptism of Our Lord 01/13/2013

Does the number 24601 mean anything to you?  It registers with a few of you; I’ll try to get the rest of you up to speed here eventually.  Today is the Baptism of Our Lord; it’s always the first Sunday after Epiphany.  But I have Les Miserables on the brain today.  I’ve had it on the brain for about 25 years now, since Kathy and I first saw the musical version of Victor Hugo’s book on stage in Boston in, it must have been 1988 or 89, after which some of the songs get stuck in your head and you wind up humming them without even realizing it.  Then you buy the CD and pretty much have the whole thing memorized before you see it again in Boston, over the years the anniversary concerts show up as PBS fundraisers, you buy the 25th anniversary DVD and then on Christmas just a couple of weeks ago the movie version appeared which I went to see a couple of day later. 

For me and apparently lots of other people too, Les Miz is quite compelling, not just the music but the story.  Two summers ago I finally read the book, which is about 1200 pages long and but it was one of the best books I’ve ever read, plus it fills in some of the gaps that the musical version leaves open.

I’m not going to tell you the whole story this morning, it is 1200 pages after all, but let me tell you a few things; I promise you this does have something to do with the Baptism of our Lord which probably isn’t very clear right now and may or may not be clear by the time I’m finished, we’ll see. 

The main character of Les Miserables is Jean Valjean, prisoner 24601,  sentenced to hard labor as a galley slave for stealing a loaf of bread to provide food for his sister’s children who were starving; this is in France about 1825.  He serves nineteen years for stealing the bread and for repeated attempts to escape, but as the story begins his time is up so he can be released, not totally free but placed on parole.  He’s given a yellow ticket that identifies him as an ex-con, a ticket which he has to present wherever he goes.

Valjean wanders around looking for work but everywhere he goes, as soon as he shows his yellow ticked he’s refused, turned away, all the while becoming increasingly angry and bitter about his lot in life and the unfairness of things. One evening though he knocks on the door at the house of the local bishop who welcomes him in and provides him with food and shelter.  The bishop, unlike everyone else, treats him like a person, like a child of God instead of like an ex-con.  To show his appreciation for this kindness, during the night Valjean steals the bishop’s silver, but gets caught telling the police that the bishop gave him the silver.  The police take him back to the bishop and tell the bishop Valjean’s lie but the bishop says, “Yes, it’s true; I gave him all that, but he forgot the best thing of all; he forgot these silver candlesticks” which he then presents to him.  After he sends the police away, the bishop blesses Jean Valjean and tells him that his soul now belongs to God.

Valjean broods over these words of the bishop, wondering what they mean, but he doesn’t change right away.  He steals again the next chance he gets, taking a coin from a 12 year old boy, but with the words of the bishop in his head he feels bad and returns the coin but still the police are after him and if gets caught, having violated his parole, it’s back to the galleys as a slave for life. 

From there though, Jean Valjean does change, and eluding those who are after him, kind of disappearing and changing his identity, and drawing on skills he had before he was a con, he becomes a very successful and wealthy factory owner taking on a new name, Monsieur Madelaine.   As Monsieur Madelaine he truly becomes a very good man, compassionate and generous but always living in fear of being recognized and identified as Jean Valjean, an identity that he himself can never really let go of despite how much he has changed despite how much good he has done and despite how far removed he is from being a thief.

In one of the early high points of the musical, the police have captured someone they think is Jean Valjean and they are ready to sentence him and send him back to the galleys, which would mean the real Jean Valjean, Monsieur Madelaine wouldn’t have to worry anymore, he could live his life.  But, having changed, instead Monsieur Madelaine shows up at the trial and reveals the 24601 branded on his chest so that the other man can go free.  Who am I, he says, Who am I, 24601. 

That’s not the end.  He gets away; in the book we’re probably only on about page 300.  He gets away in part because the people who know him as the kind and generous M. Madelaine can’t believe he’s a convict; so this is really just the introduction to the main story.  But underlying everything that happens after his encounter with the bishop is this question of identity, Who am I?  Is he who the bishop said he was?  Does his soul belong to God or is he once and forever Jean Valjean, a convict, prisoner 24601?

Who am I?  On one level it’s a pretty simple question, until you start to think about it and realize how complicated your identity is.  All of us are different things to different people, all of us are different things to ourselves.  Who am I might depend on who’s asking the question.  We’re in church though, and in church “Who am I” becomes a very heavy question because it gets down to what we might call our core identity which is who we are in God’s eyes and who we are in God’s eyes is really what this Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ baptism is all about.

To start with though, the Baptism of Our Lord is about Jesus’ identity, the season of Epiphany is about various aspects of Jesus’ identity being made known.  So this is one of those earth being touched by the divine moments as the voice from heaven proclaims Jesus as “My son, the beloved.”  That’s important from a theological standpoint, important for knowing who Jesus is, but perhaps even more important is what this says about who you are and who I am.  That gets laid out most clearly today in the first lesson from Isaiah.

Isaiah 43 is a powerful statement of the claim God makes on us.  Isaiah wouldn’t have had baptism in mind here but it’s not a stretch to make these baptismal words; “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”  Those words from heaven that were spoken about Jesus become words spoken to you and to me when we are baptized.  They are words about our identity, words that tell us that no matter how complicated our identity might get, in God’s eyes this is who we are, called by name, precious and loved.   

One of the things that struck me as I read these verses earlier in the week was all the first person pronouns, all the I’s and my’s spoken by the Lord, I think I counted 19 in 7 verses.  I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, I will be with you, I love you and so forth.  It’s like if we asked why we were given this identity, God would say “Because I said so!” and isn’t that good news?

It should be; if we can accept it, if we can really believe it. Les Miserables in many ways winds up being a very sad book or show or movie because deep down Jean Valjean never really accepts the words of the bishop.  He lives them out; he lives those words out becoming a remarkably good man, a very faithful man, but in his own eyes he never really escaped from being prisoner 24601.

The conflicts and contradictions we find in our own identities are probably not as drastic as those of Jean Valjean but I think we all have those aspects of ourselves that we don’t love very much so we wonder if God can love us.  But it comes back to God’s words spoken to Jesus, it comes back to Isaiah 43, it comes to all those first person pronouns, all the I’s and my’s and mine’s that God speaks to us.  It comes back to God’s “Because I said so.”

Touched by the waters of baptism, your soul does belong to God.  Whatever other identities any of us has, that is who we are to God.  The words the bishop spoke to Jean Valjean were true, not just for him, but for all of us.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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