This is what we know about Samuel: His mother was Hannah and his father was Elkanah who have no children due to the fact that Hannah had a difficult time conceiving. In her barren state Hannah prays to God for a child outside the sanctuary in Shiloh. Eli, the priest of Shiloh, hears the mumbling prayers of Hannah and thinks that she is drunk; but upon discovering that she is not drunk and only hoping that God will grant her a child . . . Eli blesses her after she promises the child to God. Subsequently Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child that is named Samuel. The name Samuel can have two meanings—“name of God” or “God has heard” . . . I will let you decide which meaning you prefer on your own. Upon weaning the child, Hannah takes Samuel to the priest Eli to raise. Samuel would be a transition point in the story between two eras . . . between the time of the judges and the prophets. In rabbinical literature he is the last of the Hebrew judges and the first of the major prophets. And, we know that God spoke directly to him.
Our story this morning begins in Samuel’s youth. The writer tells us that it was a time in the history of the people in which God rarely spoke to them . . . a time when “there were not many visions.” It is night and Samuel is asleep in the temple when he is woke up by a voice calling his name. Thinking that it is Eli, now old and going blind, he runs to the priest and declares, “Here I am.” But the priest tells the boy that he did not call him and tells him to go back to bed. A second time, the voice calls out Samuel’s name . . . a second time he runs to the old priest only to be sent back to bed.
The third time that this happens, Eli begins to suspect that something is going on . . . that maybe, just maybe, the voice calling Samuel’s name is none other than God’s voice. Eli directs Samuel to return to bed and that if he hears the voice again he is to tell the voice: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And, sure enough, the voice calls his name a fourth time and the boy does as he is instructed.
And, God does speak to Samuel . . . brings judgment against Eli and his family for the sins that they had committed against God and the people. Not the sort of thing that one wants to hear. The words of God troubled Samuel and left him sleepless the rest of the night. He was scared to tell Eli what God had told him . . . scared to share the vision. Come morning, though, Eli wanted to know what God had told Samuel.
Eli called for the boy. Samuel responded: “Here I am.” Samuel then proceeded to tell the old priest everything . . . everything! In the end, Eli could only respond: “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.” The shift in the story had begun.
“Hineni” is the Hebrew word that translates to “Here I am.” In the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, we hear it uttered. In the story of Moses at the burning bush, Moses responds with the phrase. And, in our reading this morning, Samuel responds: “Hineni . . . here I am.”
Hineni’s literal meaning is an unequivocal acceptance of what is asked. The phrase in not meant to be an acknowledgement of one’s presence to another, but something deeper and more profound . . . more spiritual . . . it is an acceptance . . . a vulnerability to let go of everything one knows and to allow another to guide your actions. In the examples I shared, it was to let go and allow God to lead the way. Not an easy task.
Not an easy task for a boy to bring judgment against the man who raised him . . . against a priest. Yet, Samuel does what he is told. It was not an easy task for Abraham to do as God told him . . . to sacrifice his son, but Abraham goes the distance. It was not easy for Moses to drop everything, leave behind security, and follow God’s directions.
”Hineni” is more than acknowledging one’s presence in the presence of another . . . it is a vulnerability, a willingness, to do what is asked.
It is not easy, yet that is what God does.
The gospel reading for this morning, John 1:43 through 51, tells about Jesus’ invitation to the Philip and Nathanael to follow him. Philip apparently had no qualms about following Jesus, but Nathanael was a little more leery. To Philip’s statement of the Messiah being found in Jesus, Nathanael remarks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Pretty typical of the half-heartedness that began the relationship between the disciples and Jesus . . . they wanted to believe, but they were going to throw in the whole shebang just in case it didn’t work out. Yes, they announced their presence, but they did not fully embrace and accept. It is not easy to let go and let God have control.
It is not easy being fully present to God’s will. Yet, it seems that those who are and are fully engaging to that presence, there comes great blessing. Please note that I do not say that life is going to be easy, but that there will be great blessing. So it was for Abraham as God spared the life of Isaac. So it was for Moses as he led God’s people out of captivity into a land of their own. So it was for Samuel. And, it would be for those who would choose to follow Jesus.
For it to happen we have to make ourselves vulnerable. We have to lay it on the line . . . risk it all . . . and have the trust and faith that it will all work out in the end. And, it will. That is what Jesus told Nathanael: “You will see greater things than these.”
Remember those Verizon commercials in which some guy was wandering around the United States, holding up his cell phone, and yelling, “Can you hear me now?” Samuel played his own sort of that game with God when he kept mistaking God’s voice for Eli’s. He was hearing it, but he hadn’t yet fully embraced it. How often do we miss the opportunity to proclaim “Hineni” when we hear the voice of God in our own lives? What? You say that you don’t hear the voice of God in your lives? That is impossible . . . God speaks to us all the time. The problem is that we don’t want to move into the realm of “Hineni”.
God speaks to us globally. In the reign of terror sweeping across the world . . . God speaks to us. In growing cold war with North Korea . . . God speaks to us. In the murder and violence in Africa . . . God speaks to us. In the poverty and famine of third world nations . . . God speaks to us. Can you hear the voice of God?
Regionally, God speaks to us. In the booming sex trade and trafficking market of the Balkens area . . . God is speaking. In the growing population of the homeless that are wandering the streets of Billings . . . God is speaking. Looking at the things that Montana ranks in the top ten in the nation . . . suicide, DUIs, and poor education rates—to name a few . . . God is speaking. Can you hear the voice of God?
Even within our community, God is speaking. If I asked you to take five minutes and write down on a piece of paper all the things that our community needs to address to make it a better and more accepting community for a diverse population to call home . . . how many things would you write down? How many problems would you come up with that need to be fixed? God is speaking . . . can you hear the voice of God?
And, lastly, God speaks to us individually . . . personally. Try the same exercise that I asked you to consider for the community . . . in your own life, how many things can you come up with? God speaks to us.
Still think that God does not speak to us?
God speaks to us all the time . . . but, it is not so much a matter of whether or not we want to listen, it is a matter of vulnerability . . . a willingness to trust God with our lives . . . a sense of courage to step up and proclaim, “Hineni—I am here!”
We are here today because there were those who came before us willing to be vulnerable in the presence of God . . . willing to step up and proclaim, “Hineni!” We live in a time, much like Samuel, in which people do not believe that God is speaking . . . but, the truth is, God is speaking. God is calling us into a new relationship . . . a new direction . . . calling us towards the Kingdom. Constantly calling . . . and, the time is now ours to respond. God wants more than our heads, God wants our hearts. “Hineni” is a response of the heart.
God is speaking . . . how shall we respond?
“Hineni” is also a simple prayer . . . I am here. May it be so. Amen.