In the third chapter of 1 Samuel, we read of a young Samuel, hearing the call of the Lord three times, and answering three times, “Here I am.” What he actually says, each time, is the Hebrew word hineni. (It sounds something like the ‘hi’ in ‘hit’, then ‘nay’, then the ‘ni’ in ‘nit’ or the ‘nee’ in ‘knee’.) The most common translation is ‘here I am’.
This Hebrew term is found in other places within scripture. In Genesis 22, Abraham responds to the call of God with hineni. Abraham responds to the call of his son with hineni. And he responds to the call of the angel with the same hineni. In Exodus 3, Moses hears the Lord calling his name, and Moses answers, “Hineni.”
We can learn a lot from this one little term. I invite us to consider two aspects–our response to God and God’s response to us.
How might we recognize the voice of God, or of a messenger of God? Among the many answers we may offer, the fundamental answer is simple: by listening. To say “here I am” to God is to pause quietly in the expectation that God is going to say something. That is no trivial thing. There are plenty of people who believe in God, who live wonderfully exemplary lives, and who never actually stop to listen to God and who never actually seem to expect God to communicate anything. It is easy to believe, or not, in something that is far away, a concept. It is another thing altogether to consider the immediate presence of God and to actively, expectantly listen. It is still more removed if, having heard, we respond.
Consider Abraham. It is interesting that he did not see fit to explain to his servants what he was doing. He did not begin by telling people that he was responding to the voice of God. Perhaps he still wondered himself. And take Moses–suppose someone came and told you that he had heard the voice of God speaking from a bush, and that the bush was on fire, but the fire did not burn the bush. You might very reasonably think that he had eaten the wrong mushrooms.
Entertaining the possibility that a small, faint voice may be the Almighty speaking is an act of faith. It is also an act of freedom, freeing us from the worldly constraint that says that truth always speaks loudly, and that we should listen to the powerful, the mainstream, that we should wrap ourselves in the terrible chains of normality. If we are paying attention, it is pretty clear that Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Paul were not normal people.
So how we distinguish faith from lunacy? It may be that the only answer is found in these old stories of faith, the stories of Abraham, and Moses, and Samuel, of people who responded to God and whose response was, finally, embraced by the continuous body of the faithful over the centuries. Time and faith were the winnowing fan of scripture. If we are hearing a voice that speaks something radically different from the voices found in scripture, it may not be a voice to follow.
What does it mean when we say to God, “Here am I?” What did the folk in our faith stories bring with them when they said, “Hineni?” There is nothing of ‘Hey, look what I can do for you’, nothing of ‘Here I stand with ability and worth’. In fact, the only thing we can bring is recognition of our emptiness, of our unworthiness to respond to the Almighty.
There is a blessing. When we stop to respond to God, we recognize that all of these burdens, ideas, conceits, and worries we carry around are what they are—nothing in the face of God.
Remember that we are not the only ones saying, “Hineni!” …They shall know that it is I who speak; here am I. (Isaiah 52:6)
These are words of comfort, that we might hear God calling us, and a promise that God is always listening, always present, always waiting. If we pause, quietly, expectantly, we may hear the voice of God whispering, ”Here am I.”