In the Winter of 1966, a voters registration card arrived in the mail at the home of Vernon Dahmer (Day-mer). On the surface, something like this is no big deal, it happens every day. But this was different, for several reasons. It was different because Vernon Dahmer was an 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 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. 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.
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 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: 1 … “There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, 2 all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, 3 the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. 4 Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’
It’s awesome, all except for the next part when God says to Moses,
4 … “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” 5 And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. Again, such a tragic deal! And why did this happen? It’s not like Moses was in bad health, in earlier verses it 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 Meri bah. 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 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.” 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 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.”
And it is this sentence that we see carried out in Deuteronomy 34. And this is where I have trouble because it seems so HARSH! I mean it’s understandable that God would be upset, but really, is this the kind of punishment that Moses gets simply for hitting the rock twice instead of speaking to it? Is this the kind of punishment he gets for saying harsh words to the people? COME ON! It’s SO UNFAIR!
But is it really? Let me explain what I mean. The question is much simpler than we tend to make it out to be. How much sin is too much? Were Moses sins really “minor,” and is there actually such a thing? Moses offended the very holiness of God. He didn’t trust God’s Word and Promise. He flat out disobeyed God. Is any of that “minor?” Not at all! Is there some kind of sliding scale of sinfulness when it comes to God? Not at all. A person is either Holy or not, a person is either sinful or not. There is no middle ground. And with this in mind we can see that God isn’t unfair with Moses at all. In fact, we must admit, that whatever God decides to do would be just, and deserved, and hard to argue against.
And this is what is so DISTURBING. I would love to tell you it’s because I have such a high regard for Moses. I do, but that’s not why this reality bothers me so much. It bothers me, because as I acknowledge that God is justified in calling for whatever punishment he deems right for Moses. I am actually saying, at the same time, that God would be justified in calling down ANY kind of punishment on me!
This is the reality. But sometimes I try to “get around” this reality by convincing myself that MY sins aren’t so bad, or at least not as bad as someone else’s. I like to think that my sins probably do deserve punishment, but nothing harsh. But for as much as I try to convince myself, the truth is, it’s not reality. Moses was one of the greatest heroes of the faith that we find in the scriptures. In verse 10 we learn that he was a guy, “whom the LORD knew face to face.” Yet, even for him, the wage of sin is death.
Moses was kept from laying a foot onto the Promised Land. For us, the verdict concerning our sins is that our sin should keep us from every laying a foot in the true promised land, heaven. Our sin SHOULD keep us from ever seeing God face to face. …Let that sink in for a minute.
So, the Lord buries Moses, no one knows where he’s buried. And that is where the story SHOULD end for Moses. That should be all there is to say, period, end of story. And if that, was it, God would be justified. However harsh we might think it, we couldn’t argue that God did something wrong.
But here on Transfiguration Sunday, we get to witness something amazing, we get to see that there is more to this story. We get to see God’s Grace shine through brilliantly, and beautifully. You see the Transfiguration happens shortly before Jesus endures the events of Holy Week, and his ultimate plan of salvation unfurls like a flag before our eyes. Jesus is about the business of preparing his disciples for all that is about to happen. And this is the context in which we learn of this incredible event in today’s Gospel reading: 28 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John, and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. But he was NOT ALONE: 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure,[a] which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” Moses is there, in GLORY!
And what we see is God’s plan for his people, and God’s grace for sinners shining through, cutting through the shadow of death. We see that God never turned his back on Moses, that he never stopped knowing him face to face, that not even death, and the grave, and Moses’ sin, could keep God from loving him! And we are allowed to see in that moment, God’s ultimate plan for us. We see the very reason Christ was born into this world. We see why Christ died on the cross for sinners like you and me, who in no WAY deserve his love. We see why Christ rose bodily from the dead, never to die again.
He did it all because he loves you, because he doesn’t want to spend eternity without you, because we NEED him to save us, because we can’t do it ourselves. And in the glorified Elijah, and Moses, we see the POWER of God’s grace and mercy. What it means is that Christ intervenes in such a powerful way in the lives of sinners. What it really means when Christ says, “your sins are forgiven,” and, “Behold, I make all things new.” When we read the story of the transfiguration, we are reading the story of our own redemption, and forgiveness, and the new life that Christ won for us with his blood.
It’s a beautiful thing! But the truth is that your transfigured life has already begun. It matters for your future, but it also matters right now, it matters today. You have the hope of God’s plan for you alive in you today. And this leads us to live differently today, to share the love of Christ in our lives today.
This was certainly true of Vernon Dahmer’s widow, Ellie. Because in August 1998, 32 years after such cruel men attacked her home and stole the life of her husband, and her children’s father, something amazing happened. She met one of the attackers face to face for the first time. A reporter by the name of Jerry Mitchell found one of the participants in the crime, a guy named Billy Roy Pitts. And Billy testified in the trial of Sam Bowers, the ringleader of the White Nights of the KKK in Mississippi. Bowers was convicted and jailed.
But as Billy Roy Pitts left the courtroom after his testimony, he happened to walk right by Ellie Dahmer and her family. But he didn’t keep walking, he stopped, and turned to her, and with tears in his eyes, he told her how sorry he was for what he had done and asked her forgiveness. It was an awkward, and intense moment. But what happened was so breathtaking, no one who was there will ever forget it, I’m sure.
This woman who endured so many days over so many decades missing her husband, with tears in HER eyes said, “I forgive you.” And then the children who missed their dad so much and thought about all the things he never got to see, and they never got to share with him said, “I forgive you.” And the grandchildren who never got a chance to meet this great man, who had to know him only though pictures and stories, said, “I forgive you.”
And in its own way, we can say this was truly a testimony to their faith in Christ, to what God revealed to them, and all the faithful in the transfiguration. Because what we see in this moment is HOPE. Hope sure and certain. Hope born on the cross. Hope for folks like the disciples, and Elijah and Moses from the Gospel reading. Hope for people like Ellie Dahmer and her husband Vernon. Hope even for folks like Billy Roy Pitts. Hope even for people like you, and me.