My Burning Bush

Fremont Baptist Church, Seattle
Evening Service
August 1, 1999
led by
Leland Bryant Ross

Call to Worship: Psalm 118:24

This is the day that the LORD has made.
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Click for music (THIS IS THE DAY)

This is the day, this is the day
that the Lord hath made, that the Lord hath made.
We will rejoice, we will rejoice
and be glad in it, and be glad in it.
This is the day that the Lord hath made;
we will rejoice and be glad in it.
This is the day, this is the day
that the Lord hath made.

(sung twice)

And to that I will add,

Psalm 116:1-2

I love the LORD, for he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.

[At this point we sang about five or six songs, including "The Wonder of It All" (sorry, no MIDI), "Jesus Loves the Little Children" (music: TRAMP TRAMP TRAMP), "Amazing Grace" (music: NEW BRITAIN), and "Wonderful Words of Life" (music: WORDS OF LIFE)]
Exodus 3:1-15 : Moses meets God in the form of a burning bush : Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight — why the bush does not burn up."
     When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!"
     And Moses said, "Here I am."
     "Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." [I removed my sandals.] Then he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
     The LORD said, "I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey — the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt."
     But Moses said to God, "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?"
     And God said, "I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain."
     Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?"
     God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
     God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers — the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob — has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.
Let's sing "We are standing on holy ground"...
Click for music (HOLY GROUND)

We are standing on holy ground,
and I know that there are angels all around.
Let us praise Jesus now.
We are standing in his presence on holy ground.

Genesis 32:22-32 : Jacob wrestles with God in the person of a strange man : That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
     But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
     The man asked him, "What is your name?"
     "Jacob," he answered.
     Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel," — Israel means "he struggles with God" — "because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
     Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."
     But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there.
     So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."
     The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon.
     Now turn to the song "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown", by Charles Wesley. Before we sing it I'd like to digress a bit into the realm of hymnody trivia. Until around the beginning of the 1700s, there were no hymns to sing in English. There were metrical psalms, of course, and if you were Catholic there were Latin hymns (though the Catholics didn't go in for congregational singing), but there weren't really any English hymns to speak of, and anyway the churches for the most part frowned on singing anything other than the Psalms. But along about the beginning of the 1700s Isaac Watts came along; he was the first serious English hymnwriter. He wrote hundreds of hymns, including "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun" that we sang this morning, and "Come, We That Love the Lord" that we sang last week. Ever since Watts, most English-language churches have sung hymns as well as psalms.
     Anyhow, a few years later, in the 1730s, along came Charles Wesley, one of the greatest hymnwriters in the English language, if not the greatest. He was the brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Among about a thousand other hymns, many of which we still sing today, he wrote this hymn, "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown", based on the story I just read about how Jacob got the name Israel. When it first came out, Isaac Watts was retired, but he was still alive, and he was quoted as saying, "that one poem, 'Wrestling Jacob', was worth all the hymns I ever wrote." Now that is high praise from one hymnist to another, and I think Charles Wesley felt deeply honored to receive it. In this hymn, you will see, Wesley interprets the "man" or "God" with whom Jacob wrestled as Jesus, who is both God and man. This is not the only way this story can be read, but it is one way, and I think Wesley did an outstanding job of it. Let's sing it.
Click for music (CANDLER)
  1. Come, O thou Trav-el-er un-known,
    Whom still I hold, but can-not see!
    My com-pa-ny be-fore is gone,
    And I am left a-lone with Thee;
    With Thee all night I mean to stay,
    And wres-tle till the break of day.
    With Thee all night I mean to stay,
    And wres-tle till the break of day.

  2. I need not tell Thee who I am,
    My mis-er-y and sin de-clare;
    Thy-self hast called me by my name,
    Look on Thy hands, and read it there;
    But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?
    Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.
    But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?
    Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.

  3. Wilt Thou not yet to me re-veal
    Thy new, un-ut-ter-a-ble Name?
    Tell me, I still be-seech Thee, tell;
    To know it now re-solved I am;
    Wrest-ling, I will not let Thee go,
    Till I Thy Name, Thy na-ture know.
    Wrest-ling, I will not let Thee go,
    Till I Thy Name, Thy na-ture know.

  4. Yield to me now, for I am weak,
    But con-fi-dent in self-de-spair!
    Speak to my heart, in bless-ings speak,
    Be con-quered by my in-stant prayer;
    Speak, or Thou nev-er hence shalt move,
    And tell me if Thy Name is Love.
    Speak, or Thou nev-er hence shalt move,
    And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

  5. 'Tis Love! 'tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
    I hear Thy whis-per in my heart;
    The morn-ing breaks, the sha-dows flee,
    Pure, u-ni-ver-sal love Thou art;
    To me, to all, Thy mer-cies move;
    Thy na-ture and Thy Name is Love.
    To me, to all, Thy mer-cies move;
    Thy na-ture and Thy Name is Love.

  6. I know Thee, Sav-ior, who Thou art.
    Je-sus, the fee-ble sin-ner's friend;
    Nor wilt Thou with the night de-part.
    But stay and love me to the end,
    Thy mer-cies nev-er shall re-move;
    Thy na-ture and Thy Name is Love.
    Thy mer-cies nev-er shall re-move;
    Thy na-ture and Thy Name is Love.

     Wow. I don't think Dr. Watts was necessarily exaggerating. That is a powerful song, at least it is for me, and a very interesting take on a very interesting story. As Wesley wrote it, the hymn has fourteen stanzas, but in my mercy ;-) I whittled it down to six for you. The current Methodist hymnal has a four-verse version, but I don't think that quite suffices.
September 2-14, 1984 : I meet God in the guise of two bottles of Almadén Mountain Chablis : It's the first of August, and every time August rolls around, I start looking towards September. This coming September first will be the fifteenth anniversary of my last drink.

     Let me tell you about those days. On September first, 1984, I was drunk. I'd been drinking all night. I'd been drinking all month. I'd been drinking most every chance I got for most of the previous twelve years or so. What made this day different from all the other days I had been drunk was this: on Monday, September third, it was my intention to kill myself. Well, not exactly kill myself. My plan, which I had been working on all August, was to rob a bank and hope to be killed in the process. I had chosen bank robbery because it had several possible outcomes, and they all looked better than where I was. As I saw it there were three possibilities: either I would be shot and killed during the robbery (and my problem would be solved), or maybe I would be arrested (in which case at least I wouldn't have to worry about room and board for many years to come), or I might actually get away with it and have all this money, and be able to drink myself to death the way I wanted to. (I'd been trying to do it with quarts of Rheinlander beer — boy, that really dates me: when I sobered up they still hadn't invented 40-ouncers, we still had to make do with quarts! — but I swear you'd drown in the stuff before you died from it; Olympia beer advertises "It's the Water!" Rheinlander could advertise "It's water!" — but I digress.) So on Monday I was planning on robbing a bank and hopefully dying. But I didn't really want to die, I just wanted out from where I was, and I couldn't think what else I hadn't tried.
     So that Saturday morning, as a last ditch alternative, I went to see a former therapist of mine. Now this guy had kept me sober once for a year and a half, because when I was in therapy with him I, as we say in AA, "turned my will and my life over to the care of" this therapist and his wife. They said, "Don't drink." I didn't drink. So I went to see him that morning, September first, hoping that he would say some magic words and put me on lithium or something and make me okay. But this time he smelled me coming (I guess!) and his first words were, "Leland, how much have you had to drink?" So I told him, just what I'd had that past night, not the whole month or the whole 12 years, and he said, "Leland, you're an early late-stage chronic alcoholic. Don't you think you should go to an AA meeting?"
     I was utterly deflated, totally shot down. All my hopes (such as they were) that he could help me vanished. You see, I'd been to AA before and it had not kept me sober. I was convinced I was not able to "stay sober" with or without AA for even one day at that point, unless I was physically unable to get anything to drink, and anyway I thought I was what AA literature calls "constitutionally incapable of being honest with" myself, and thus doomed to die drunk. I had given up on even trying to stay sober; my failures had been so many and so demoralizing. (Incidentally, when I was in therapy, I wasn't diagnosed as alcoholic; the "don't drink" injunction was just house rules; they said, "If you want to be in therapy with us, you must not drink or use any street drugs", and I just did what I was told.)
     But I had nothing for an alternative, and I had to kill a couple days before I killed myself, so I followed his advice, and went to AA. I went down to Fremont to the noon meeting that day at the old Fremont Hall, which used to be just a couple blocks from here. I walked in late and drunk, and sat down — and haven't had a drink since.
     That first night of my sobriety, I stayed with somebody I met at the hall, and didn't go back to my room in a rundown rooming house in the U District until the second night. But the second night I did go back to my room, and as I approached the building, there on the back porch was a half-gallon bottle of Almadén Mountain Chablis, nearly full, just sitting there waiting for me.

     Now, you must understand, at this point in my life I didn't believe in God. I didn't believe there was a God, and if there was one I thought he was probably more like the devil, and definitely out to get me! And the last meeting I'd been to that night, the topic had been "Do What's In Front Of You". They meant, of course, "Do the next indicated thing. Take the next obvious, needed step." But faced with that bottle of wine, I thought they meant I was supposed to drink that wine. Any other day in my adult life to that point I would have rejoiced to find such a bottle. But now I thought that God — the God I didn't believe in — had put the wine there for me to drink, and I rebelled. I said, "No way, God. I don't think that's funny. I am not going to drink it."
     And I went in and went to bed, but I couldn't sleep, partly because I was detoxing, and partly because I couldn't stop thinking about that half-gallon of wine that was waiting for me on the porch.
     Finally about 5 am I gave up and decided to go to a meeting. So I walked all the way down Eastlake and up to Capitol Hill to the Big Hall, an AA hall that used to be up there. [Probably a distance of at least five miles.] And all the way I was praying, going "Not my will but Thy will be done" in time to my footsteps: "Not, my, will, but, Thy, will, be, done. Not, my, will, but, Thy, will, be, done. Not, my, will, but, Thy, will, be, done." Over and over. I probably prayed more that morning than in all the years since, prayed a vain repetitious prayer to a God I didn't believe existed and who I thought had just tried to get me drunk! (I was, as we say in AA, "toxic".) And the whole way I stared at the sidewalk ahead of me, hoping to find money. On the way to the Big Hall I passed by two restaurants that had early morning AA meetings, but both were closed for Labor Day. Finally I reached the Big Hall, and they let me work in their rummage sale to earn bus fare to get back to Fremont for the noon meeting.
     And when I got to Fremont that noon, I told somebody there about the bottle of wine, and they got really upset with me. They said, "You shouldn't have just left it there. You should have picked that bottle up and smashed it on the cement; you should've destroyed it!" And I felt crushed. I was devastated. Now I knew what God had really wanted me to do, and I hadn't done it! (Still not believing in God!)
     When I got home late that night, of course the bottle was gone.
     But two weeks later, actually it was on Friday the 14th, the 13th full day of my sobriety, as I was walking through the U District, there on the hood of a parked car, about two blocks from my rooming house, in the middle of the afternoon, was another half-gallon bottle of Almadén Mountain Chablis, almost full! It could have been the identical bottle, except there's no way an unattended half gallon of wine will keep two weeks, and move two blocks, in the U District!
     Anyhow, I picked up that second bottle and I threw it across 45th Street, and it splattered all over the UW campus. And I felt so good! I had been given a second chance to do God's will, and I had done it.
     And when I saw that second bottle, I knew (and have never been able to believe otherwise since, even when I tried), I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was a God and that God was, as Pastor Larry preached on this morning, "for me". [The morning's sermon had been on Psalm 56, with special emphasis on vv. 4 & 11, and a cross-reference to Romans 8:31.] That God wanted me to be sober, and wanted me to know he existed, and that God knew me inside out, to be able to pull a stunt like those wine bottles to get my attention. That God had been behind the entire concatenation of events that brought me to AA, where, I suddenly realized, I had been sober for two weeks, which I knew to be both physically and morally impossible. God had stepped in and removed my desire to drink and replaced it with a desire to go to AA meetings.
     And along with this realization came the sudden awareness that September 3rd, the day I had been planning on robbing the bank (which plan had totally slipped my mind at the time), had been Labor Day — a federal and bank holiday — if I had tried to rob a bank that day I would have found the bank locked, and I would have had to fall back on my backup plan, which was to jump off the Aurora Bridge. It seemed so final, that was why it was my backup plan! But since coming to AA, I've met four people who jumped off the Aurora Bridge and lived! That possibility never crossed my mind. It wouldn't have even occurred to me to be sure to jump onto the concrete — and even if I had, a convertible might have driven by just then and caught me with its roof...
     God had done what it took to save me.
Acts 10:9 - 11:18 : Peter learns a valuable lesson that was not found in the Scriptures : Now, let's turn briefly to the 10th chapter of Acts, where Peter has a vision. Now, we all know Peter didn't achieve his high rank among the apostles through his intellectual brilliance; indeed, he was rather hardheaded and thickskulled, so God had to repeat the vision three times before it sank in; but eventually Peter got it.

     About noon the following day as they (they being men sent to Peter from Cornelius's house, Cornelius being a Roman centurion) were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."
     "Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." [Like pretty much all of the Christians at the time, Peter was a good kosher-keeping Jew.]
     The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."
     This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
     While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon's house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
     While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them."
     Peter went down and said to the men, "I'm the one you're looking for. Why have you come?"
     The men replied, "We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say." Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

     Now, in the time in question, no matter how God-fearing and respected a gentile might be, it was not acceptable Jewish practice either to entertain him in one's home or to be a guest in his. There was entirely too much danger that he or someone in his house might be engaging in ceremonially unclean acts that would endanger the purity of a Jew. The law and the prophets were full of reiteration of the dangers. But Peter had just had this vision... so when Peter got to Cornelius's house, he drew a lesson from the vision, a lesson that he had no scriptural warrant for:
     He said to them, "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?"
     So Cornelius asked Peter to preach to him, and Peter preached a summary of the gospel to him, much of which was already known, at least in a general way, to Cornelius, and then
. . . while Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
     Then Peter said, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. . . .
     And when Peter got back to Jerusalem and other Christian leaders there criticized him, saying "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them," Peter recounted his vision, and his experience, without any recourse to proof texts, and when they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life."

     Last week Dan Rebolledo brought us a very interesting message and discussion on the Bible, and I wanted to take this opportunity to put in my two cents' worth on the subject. One of the famous ways of looking at the Bible, which Dan dwelt on last week, is "the Word of God". But I am not one of those who view the Bible that way. For me, the Bible is primarily words of men. It's words of men that testify to God, and it's words of men through which the Word of God can and does speak, but my experience is more nearly like this passage from my favorite hymnal, the Chalice Hymnal: "In some vital sense God speaks to the believer through Holy Scripture. Through encounter with these human words, persons of faith hear God's voice. This divine word often reassures, but also convicts and converts.
     The three Scripture passages I have read you all illustrate for me the fact that these people, Moses, Jacob, Peter, and I might add, Wesley and I, had real-life encounters with a real, living God. Their experiences were recorded and made their way into the Bible, where I can read them, and they can resonate with my experience, and can confirm or challenge me, but it was my own experience of God in my life that gave me saving faith. Because of my own experience of the living God, I can appreciate in a real way Jacob's, and Wesley's, "with thee all night I mean to stay and wrestle till the break of day", "I need not tell thee who I am — my misery and sin declare" — He loved me ere I knew him, and all my love is due him — "Yield to me now, for I am weak, but confident in self-despair! Speak to my heart, in blessings speak, be conquered by my instant prayer. Speak, and tell me if thy name is Love."
     Since I saw that second bottle of wine, the story of Moses and the Burning Bush has been utterly and unarguably real to me, where before it was only a legend; I wasn't there to see it, and I make no assertions about its historicity, but its truth for me is borne out in my own experience. And I have been given cause to believe, and in a real sense to know, what Wesley meant by "'Tis Love! 'tis Love! Thou diedst for me! I hear thy whisper in my heart; the morning breaks, the shadows flee, pure, universal Love thou art!" Don't get me wrong; I didn't become a full-blown Christian overnight, and I'm still far from your typical Christian — it was another five or six years after I met God in those bottles before I could affirm Wesley's line, "I know thee, Savior, who thou art: Jesus, the feeble sinner's friend", and during those five or six years, I often felt like I was standing on a slippery slope, and if I didn't watch my footing I would end up at the bottom, and be a Christian. Those years, like the years that have followed, have been occupied by my ongoing wrestling match with God; but I know now, that God is pure, universal Love, and that he will not with the night depart, but stay and love me to the end.
     Let's sing "Jesus loves me", and may we all come to know that truth, in a way we cannot deny, not merely because the Bible tells us so, but because we have experienced it.

Click for music (JESUS LOVES ME)
[There followed prayer and a couple more songs, I think they were the Dakota hymn "Wakantanka Taku Nitawa" ("Many and Great, O God, Are Thy Things") (music: LACQUIPARLE) and "O Worship the King" (music: LYONS) then we retired to the lounge to eat and fellowship.]
Piano and/or organ accompaniment for most of the music in tonight's program was provided by Mr. Verne M. Eke. Many of the MIDI files utilized in this online version of the sermon have been copied with permission from The Cyber Hymnal; others are of my own creation using NoteWorthy Composer.

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