By David Ney
The LORD came and stood there, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel! Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening
— 1 Sam. 3:10
It is incumbent upon us, in this season of Lent, to be honest with ourselves and with God about naming where we are. When we refuse to do so we inoculate ourselves from the particular word which God may have in mind to address us with in our particular situations. It is only as we acknowledge where we are that we can say, “Here am I Lord. [Not there or there, but here.] Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). This all seems obvious enough. But naming the place where we are is something we find exceedingly difficult. We find it difficult because we are lazy. Naming here takes time, meditation, and prayer. We also find it difficult because we’re afraid. We know that if we start to explore too eagerly, we may dig up something unpleasant. And yet we must come to terms with here because here, is the place God will find me. Here is the place he will address me. Here is the place he will minister to me. And here is the place from which he will commission me.
Over the next weeks in these Lenten reflections, I will consider what it means to say that “here” is a time of scattering. I want us to consider what it means to say that “here” is a time of plague. And finally, I want us to think about what it means to say that “here” is a time of passing through the waters. But first I want us to pause to think some more about what it means to be “here.”
“Here” is something we can Google. We can find it on a map. We can learn about it by reading the news. We can follow our favorite pundit or read our favorite magazine. We can acquire geographical, geological, demographical, economic, sociological, religious, and cultural facts about our world and about our neighborhoods. We can strive to become informed. And we should. But our lack of understanding about where we are isn’t simply a matter of laziness or ignorance. We can know all of the facts and yet live in utter darkness about where we are. What we need is not merely the facts, but the interpretation of the facts. And not just any old interpretation will do — we must come to see where we are in God’s sight. And we can’t do this on our own. We must, in humility, turn to God and to his Word. The Scriptures show us where here is.
The Scriptures, though, do not provide us with the simple answers we are inclined to accept. “Here,” scripturally speaking, is a complex place. There are multitudes of scriptural words which we must consider if we are to come to a mature understanding of the place where we are and the time in which we have been placed. Scripture’s resources are limitless. We will never come to the resolution we long for about the place we call here even as we search the Scriptures as we should. As mortal creatures subject to sin, we cannot fully understand where we are, nor can we fully understand why we have been placed “here.” But here we are, and here we shall be, until God leads us to another here, somewhere and sometime else. So we can complain about here. And bemoan that we have been stuck here. But we can’t get away from here. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
We will have to decide what to do with the time we have been given. But before we decide what to do, we will have to decide how to proceed as we search the Scriptures for where we are. As it turns out, we can begin anywhere we choose, as long as we begin with the words themselves. To keep things straightforward today, let’s begin with the word “here.”
Dr. Seuss described our world aptly when he said, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!” The world Dr. Seuss describes is the world of the Scriptures, for the Scriptures lay before us the vast and curious diversity of creation. In the Scriptures, there is a here for each and every creature. And indeed, in the Scriptures, having a here which is not there or there or there is just what it means to be a creature. Here is only there and there and there for the creator God. Everywhere is here for God, thus here means something different for God than it does for us. I’m here, and not there. For me, here and there are opposites. For God, though, they aren’t. For God there is here as much as here is here. And here is there, as much as there is.
Genesis chapter 1 is a good place to start if we want to consider what it means for creatures to be “here.” It doesn’t just tell us that God created a vast array of diverse creatures. It tells us that God created the heavens and the earth for his creatures. Thus, for example, God separates the waters above from the waters below to create a sky which will become a suitable place for birds and insects to thrive. If we use the language of science, we might say that each creature is suited to the habitat in which it finds itself. But if we use the language of Scripture, we say that each creature is placed within its proper place to enable it to flourish, and its proper place is called “here.”
The Hebrew and Greek words we translate as here show up all over the place in the Scriptures. Biblical authors speak a lot more about here than they do about there because they always address their audience from their particular “here.” And since the stories they tell are stories about other creatures, they are constantly referring not only to their own “heres” but also to the “heres” of others. Thus in Numbers 22 the prophet Balaam instructs Balak and his officials, “Stay here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, just as the LORD speaks to me.” In Deuteronomy 5 Moses tells the leaders of the people, “stand here by me, and I will tell you all the commandments, the statutes and the ordinances, that you shall teach them, so that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.” And in 1 Samuel 16 Samuel asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse replies that there is a youngest son who is out tending the sheep. And Samuel replies, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”
In the Scriptures there are thus two ingredients that make up the word here: Person and place. “Here” denotes the occasion in which person and place come together. This coming together is the foundation of the divine-human encounter. If this is the appointed place, leaving here means that it is no longer here, and thus can no longer serve as the grounds of divine encounter. The place may still exist as here for others and where you go may still be here for you. But in both cases, it is a different here than the one which was appointed by God. Thus when Samuel, the boy, leaves the here of God’s word for the here of Eli’s bedside he leaves the here appointed by God and he is thus unable to hear the word of the Lord.
If you leave here and go there, you may miss the divine word which was appointed for here. The good news is that does not mean you are Godforsaken.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there; If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139)
Even there can be the here where his presence is felt and known.
Jonah, as you know, fled from here. He wanted nothing to do with here because here was the place of encounter with God’s uncomfortable Word. What Jonah failed to appreciate was that as a creature of the Lord he inevitably brought here with him, even as he fled to the outer reaches of the world. Because he brought here with him, God was able to find him and summon him wherever he was. And Jonah found, even in his suicidal rejection of here, that God was still with him, for here, wherever it is, always belongs to the Lord. Here is never beyond the Lord’s omnipotent reach, since for God there and there and there is always here.
Jonah, though, is an icon of God’s mercy, not his law. It is quite evident that we are not expected to go and do likewise; on the contrary, Jonah receives divine favor despite himself. When he sinned, grace may well have increased; but we still see in Jonah the apostle Paul’s warning, “Shall we sin so that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:2). Jonah’s sin was not that he was a traveler; his sin was that he became a traveler in an attempt to flee from the here of the divine summons. Abram, too, was a traveler; but he travelled for precisely the opposite reason. He did not travel to flee from here but to follow it. God summoned Abram from one here to another because God had in mind a different here as the grounds of his blessing for him and for his seed. Even though Abram went off in search of an unknown here, his quest was birthed by here. Here in the land of Uz, God addressed him. Abram was faithful to God because he heard the divine summons here and responded to it here even though responding meant that he would have to leave here for there.
We often think of the voice of the Holy Spirit as the voice which calls us away from here to there. But the Scriptures make it clear that here is the place of the Spirit’s work in our lives. He can address us nowhere else but here, since we are creatures. His address to us comes to us as a component part of the experience of being here. Attending to the Spirit is a matter of attending to here, just as quenching of the Spirit is a failure to attend to it.
This is a hard word. The world of social media beckons us away from here and those God has placed here with us, for the distant unknown lands of potential relational intrigue and satisfaction. Marketing, as we know, has moved well beyond the original mandate of promoting products. Advertising is now not a matter of convincing you to fill a need but a matter of creating a need that you will then set off to fill. We are bombarded each day with messages that teach us to be dissatisfied with here, and this advertising has become, quite frankly, demonic. In our culture here can always be replaced with there.
Our culture is forcefully pushing us from here to there; but the Scriptures work in the opposite direction, calling us back to where we are. “See! Behold! Here!” the prophet says. Not there or there or there.
The word I am saying to you is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deut. 30:13-15)
“See! Behold! Here!” the first word of the prophet. It is a word that finds fulfillment in the Word which came here when he became flesh and dwelt among us.
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, “Here I am — it is written about me in the scroll —
I have come to do your will, my God.” (Hebrews 10:6-8)
Jesus responded to the divine summons by saying, “Here I am.” He took hold of a body, a particular body and he embraced all that being a body entails by embracing “here,” the emblem of creaturely limitation. “See! Behold! Here I am.” See! Behold! Here! “Here is the man!” (John 19:5), Pilate says. Not there or there or there but here!
It seems evident that here in this case is not here for us. Pilate says “here,” “Here is the man,” because Jesus of Nazareth was standing right before his eyes. Since Jesus isn’t standing right before our eyes, we aren’t permitted to say this. It seems we must instead take up the voice of the angel in the garden and say, “He is not here” even though he had been previously here in his incarnation. But the Resurrection doesn’t mean the end of Jesus’s earthly body. Thus, the Resurrection does not stop Jesus from being able to own the word here. Jesus is still here but he is not here in the way he was while he lived on earth. I think this is why we are warned to distrust those who claim Jesus has already returned. Who then, is the one who cries out, “Look, here is the Messiah!” or, “There he is!” (Matt. 24:23)?: the one who has failed to acknowledge the Resurrection. Before the Resurrection it was perfectly appropriate to say of Christ, “Look, here he is” or “there he is.” It was appropriate to say, “He is teaching in the temple,” and then go sit at his feet. But Jesus warns his disciples that what was appropriate to say with respect to his first coming is not appropriate with respect to the second.
What we must do, therefore, as the Church, is to come to terms with Jesus’ post-resurrection way of being here. And in this context, the one who claims that Christ has returned is tempting us to look there rather than here He has, like Jonah, fled from the divine Word and has called out to us to go and do likewise. Such a man is asking us to disbelieve that Christ’s resurrected presence is with us here.
Augustine saw in the Donatists a group who deceitfully call out, “here!” The Donatists, Augustine says, call out. “‘Lo, here is Christ, or there;’. . . that they may separate many from the Catholic city which is built upon a hill, and bring them down to the isolation of their own snares, so as utterly to destroy them. … And these men, knowing this,” Augustine continues, “choose to receive the baptism of Christ without the limits of the communion of the unity of Christ’s body” (Augustine, De bapt. 1.4.5). For Augustine, there is problematic only when there is outside of the one true Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The here of Christ’s resurrected presence, for Augustine, is the body of Christ, the place in which the sacraments are rightly administered.
Until the modern era, Christian theologians understood that Christ did not disband with his body through his resurrection and ascension and thus did not disband with here. And they took for granted that mode of Christ’s presence was defined by his resurrection and ascension. After the author of Hebrews reflects upon Christ’s incarnate body, he proceeds to consider Christ’s sacrifice of his body, once and for all. Modern interpreters of Hebrews chapter 10 tend to emphasize that it teaches that while God prepared a body for Christ, we now encounter Christ in a spiritual way through his once and for all sacrifice. Pre-modern interpreters took for granted, on the other hand, that Christ’s once and for all sacrifice was a reference to the Eucharist. They therefore took for granted that the Christians participated in Christ’s sacrifice through and in their bodies. The Eucharist, for them, was vital because it confirmed that Christ had not dispensed with here and that he could still therefore be here for us even after his ascension. The Eucharist for them, was the moment at which the here of Christ’s presence became the here of bodily reception.
Here isn’t often the place we wish it were. And as Christians it is often disappointing to us not merely because we are idealists or because we are covetous. There is a genuineness to our disappointment. We long for more of Jesus than here seems to be able to provide. Bread and wine, after all, are decidedly mundane things. They seem to be so limited in what they can accomplish. But that is just the point. The test as we come to the table of our Lord is the same test we are subject to when we ask ourselves whether here is really enough. There are so many more appealing places that we might be, just as there are so many more impressive forms which God might have taken up as the emblems of his presence.
The Eucharist is an icon which reminds us that here is the grounds of the human encounter with God. Our encounter with God didn’t suddenly become purely spiritual with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, since Jesus didn’t dispense with here and neither did we. Here is here to stay. As long as I am me I will be a creature. As long as I am a creature I will relate to God in my body. And as long as I relate to God in my body the here of my body will be my place of encounter with the body of our Lord.
We often treat here as the occasion to address our personal concerns. And like the boy Samuel, we find it easy enough to make here the place where we respond to the needs and demands of others. “Here I am, you called me. … Here I am, you called me. … Here I am, you called me.” What God wants most of all, though, is for here to be the place where we encounter and respond to him: “Speak, [LORD] for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10).
The Rev. Dr. David Ney is associate professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry.