Summary: On Transfiguration Sunday, we go all the way back to Deuteronomy and Numbers to see how God deals with sin, and in Luke, we see how big God's grace really is
In the Winter of 1966, a voters registration card arrived in the mail at the home of Vernon Dahmer. On the surface, something like this is no big deal, it happens every day. But this was different, for a number of reasons. It was different because Vernon Dahmer was a African American in Mississippi, and this was the first year he could vote just like any other person, without the encumbrance of oppressive poll taxes, or backhanded laws of discrimination. It was different because Vernon had worked hard to make this a reality. It was different, tragically, because Vernon Dahmer had died only weeks before.
He died on January 11, of horrible burns to his lungs. The night before several members of the White Nights of the KKK carried out a plan to punish Dahmer for his efforts to bring equal voting rights to the black community. In the middle of the night, several KKK members began firing guns at the house, while others threw firebombs through the windows. Vernon grabbed a shotgun and ran to the front of the house to provide cover fire while the rest of his family escaped out a back window. They all lived. But Vernon was overcome by smoke and flames. Hours later, he was dead.
It’s so heartbreaking that he never got to see all of his efforts come to fruition with his own eyes. But, so many others benefitted from his sacrifice, and bravery, and leadership. But even so, it just doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t fair. I just heard this story recently and it bothers me a lot. In fact, this whole type of situation makes me angry and restless. And I think that’s why this weeks Old Testament reading is so hard for me. It’s the last words of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, or the books of Moses as they are called.
And what we read is that the people of God are ALMOST in the Promised Land. God takes Moses up to the Peak of Mt. Nebo, to a place called Pisgah, and give Moses the supernatural ability, for a moment, to see all around him. And he sees all of the land that God is going to give to the Israelites, that they will conquer and inherit in God’s name. All the land that the people have been waiting to see for 40 years, while Moses bravely led them through their wilderness wanderings. It’s Awesome: “And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes”
It’s awesome, all except for the next part, when God says to Moses, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.” Again, such a tragic deal! And why did this happen? It’s not like Moses was in bad health, we read that he was 120, but his eyesight was undimmed and his vigor, unabated. The hardest thing for me to wrap my head around is that this all happened because of a moment of weakness Moses had, just months earlier.
After nearly 40 years of leading God’s people through the desert, they arrive back near where they started, at a place called Meribah. This was the exact site of Israel’s biggest rebellion of the Exodus, and unfortunately, events were about to repeat themselves. The people were scared, and thirsty in the desert, and they began to complain, and lose faith, and grumble against God and Moses. So God gives Moses a direct order: “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” (Numbers 20)
But 4 decades of frustration finally come to the surface for Moses, and instead of just speaking the words the Lord gave him, he gets angry at the people. He says, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.” And God is not pleased, in fact the Lord says, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”