“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and the woman hid themselves from God. But the Lord called to the man, and said, ‘Where are you’?” (Gen 3:8-9)
Those words, “Where are you?” send a shiver through me. They express in just three words something of the terrible existential loneliness, the alienation of life lived cut off from God. These words perhaps also express something of the pain and sadness of God when he loses his children, when they break their relationship with him. God’s plaintive cry ‘where are you’ is his heart-broken response to what Milton in Paradise Lost calls “man’s first disobedience.”
But there are three other words which are spoken time after time throughout Scripture. And these words, coursing through Scripture like a drum beat, are full of hope, full of promise for the mending of our relationship with God, and of the return of prodigal humanity to the loving heart of God. These three words are words of faithfulness and obedience, words which will allow God to redeem that which was lost, and bring all of humanity back into relationship with him. These three words are “Here am I.” If “Where are you?” are the most tragic words in Scripture, then “Here am I” are the most hopeful.
When God begins his great work of salvation, he first chooses Abraham. In today’s first lesson (Gen 22:1-14) , the harrowing story of the command to sacrifice Isaac, God calls to Abraham, and says “Abraham!” He answers “Here am I.” And then, having heard the terrible command to sacrifice his only son Isaac, he obeys God, and takes his son and binds him, ties him to the altar, and raises the knife – but then the angel calls out “Abraham.” He again replies, “Here am I.” “Do not lay your hand on the boy … for now I know that you fear God, since you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.”
Adam – “Where are you?” Abraham says, “Here am I.” God knows that in Abraham he has found a man of faithfulness and obedience, unlike the disobedience of Adam. It is through faithful Abraham that God can begin the great work of the redemption of humankind. “Abraham, I will bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and as the sand that is on the seashore. By your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed – because you have obeyed my voice.” “Here am I, Lord.”
And it is this courage and grace to say “Here am I” that marks out all those faithful men and woman who have followed in Abraham’s footsteps. “Here am I” are the first words spoken by Moses after God called him by name out of the burning bush. “When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses. Moses!’.” (Ex 3:4) And he said, “Here am I.”
“Here am I” are the words uttered by the prophet Isaiah when he has that extraordinary vision of the Lord in the Temple. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isa 6:8) And I said “Here am I, send me.”
And then, as the history of salvation reaches its climax, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, and announces that she is to be the Mother of the Lord. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Lk 1:31) And Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38) And that gracious consent, ‘Here am I,’ allowed Jesus to be born into the world, to finally bring us home to God – to heal the broken relationship between God and humankind. Jesus, the second Adam. But where Adam disobeyed God, and hid for shame from God’s presence, Jesus “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death upon a cross.” (Phil 2:8)
I’ve been reflecting lately upon all those people in my own life, who because they were obedient to God’s call and able in their own way to say “Here am I,” have helped to form me and bring me to know and love God.
This weekend is a special anniversary: 160 years ago a quiet, unassuming young woman called Marian Rebecca Hughes answered God’s call to her and said ‘Here am I.’ On this day 160 years ago she took solemn vows to lead a life of poverty, celibacy and obedience in the service of God. She was the first person to make such vows in the Anglican church since the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. And so in that simple ‘Here am I’ the religious life was once more restored in the Anglican Communion. Twenty-four years later, on December 27, the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, 1866, our own founder, in the presence of Charles Grafton and Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill, made the following vow: “I, Richard Meux Benson, promise and vow to Almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, before the whole company of heaven and before you my Fathers, that I will live in celibacy, poverty and obedience as one of the Mission Priests of St. John the Evangelist unto my life’s end. So help me God.” By these words the religious life for men was restored to the Anglican Communion. Because Richard Benson had the courage to say ‘here am I’ to God’s call – I am here today – all of us are here today, worshipping in this beautiful chapel.
We brothers are so full of thanksgiving to God for all his many blessings to us – and for you and so many others who are sharing with us our life and ministry. We also have a real sense that God is calling us into an exciting future, and we so want to be faithful and obedient to that vision. I would like to invite you to continue praying specifically for our future, that together we may have the faith and courage always to say “Here I am, Lord.” Please pray for our ministries, and all those whom we are called to serve. Please pray particularly for the gift of vocations – for new men to join us as brothers. Look out for someone you think may have a vocation. Pray for them – that they may hear God’s call and have the courage to say “Here am I.”
The most important thing of all, is for each one of us to remain faithful to our relationship with God. That means, every day renewing that relationship. If you are like me, you will know those seasons in your life when you have been more like poor old Jonah, hiding from God, running away from God. “Geoffrey, where are you?” But God never gives up. Like the hound of heaven in Francis Thompson’s famous poem, “those strong feet followed, followed after.” God loves us too much to let us go.
The invitation from God is always to come home. To know again just how much God love you and then to take the risk every day to say ‘Lord, here am I,’ I am yours. I offer my life to you this day. Use me in your service.
When you come up in a little while to receive holy communion, remember all those men and women whom God called by name: Abraham, Moses, Mary, Marian, Richard. As you receive the body and blood of Christ, hear God calling your name, and with thanksgiving in your heart, say “Here am I.”
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