*SURPRISE*, today everybody gets a bonified Hebrew “word of the day”. It has three parts, to be said out loud where you’re sitting, the more gusto the better. The first is the sound we make for any male, man or boy, that we know or even don’t know. This man or boy isn’t a “she” but a… “he.” First sound: “hee”. The second sound looks something like this:
If you can’t tell, that’s a horse. And the horse says… “neighhh”. Second sound: “nay”. And the last sound is the same sound we use for that joint about halfway up our legs, the one that has a “cap.” The knee. Third sound: “nee”. Altogether now, “hee-nay-nee.” Hineni. And it looks like this ——>
Fancy. Somebody out there just found their next Christian hipster tattoo. Turns out hineni is definitely fancy, it’s an ultra-special word/phrase because of where it’s often found — in many a call story. Call stories being those times when God defies all logic and is outspoken to call out to humans, to draw them towards fell deeds and adventure and even terrible danger, for the sake of something vital to God’s kingdom. The most famous of those stories have a common trait; the humans tend to answer the same way. When God calls they say “Hineni!” meaning something like, “Here I am.” Sounds anti-climactic, I know. As if God didn’t know where they already were for Pete’s sake. Yeesh. But there’s depth here. It turns out to be an excellent way to answer God when God comes a-calling. And as all accounts teach us that the actual experience of God coming a-calling can be daunting if not terrible (by all means in a “good scary” kind of way, but still) — it’s worth our looking into. In case any, or one, or all of us actually have that call experience, and need a way to respond.
“Here I am.” In the olden days, there were actually a couple ways to say that in Hebrew. In seminary our Hebrew professors made us speak the language and when he/she called the class roll, we could choose how to respond. We could give a “Po ani” or a “Hineni”. The first meant “I’m here” in the same sense most of us meant it in the back row of chem lab in high school — “I’m barely here, I’m here just enough to get credit for my body being physically present, but beyond that, blahhh.” On the other hand, hineni has a lot more *BOOM*. It’s about being here, and close by, and present, but also about readiness, awareness, awakeness. It’s a lot like the word we translate as “Lo!” or “Behold!” So we get the sense it’s more of a “Here I am! Look, it’s me! I’m present, listening, and ready to roll. I’m at your service.” A better answer for God. And like I said it pops up everywhere…
If you remember when Abraham takes his long-promised son, Isaac, up on the mountain to sacrifice him to God (as God tests his faith), at the moment when Abraham has the boy tied down and his knife raised over his head to do the deed, the voice of God cries out, “Abraham! Abraham!” How does Abraham answer? “HINENI! HINENI!” “Here I am, awaiting further instructions (and hoping this means my boy can live)!” That was the beginning of a call story for him.
If you remember Moses, out in the wilderness and hearing a voice from afar, “Moses, Moses.” There was a bush that looked like it was on fire but wouldn’t burn up, and it was where the voice came from. Moses replied, “Hineni.” “Yes, it’s me, here I am.” And the call story had begun.
Samuel, the famous prophet who annointed King David, started as a little boy in the priest’s house who woke up to a voice calling in the night, “Samuel, Samuel.” When he asked the priest who it was and how to respond, he told him what to say: “Hineni!” So the story began.
Isaiah, another famous prophet, has a vision of God in heaven on God’s throne, in the midst of God’s glory, the smoke and thunder and power. God asks, “Whom shall we send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah calls out, “Here I am! Send me!” He said, “Hineni.”
And now for the story we’re opening up today, the story of Joseph and a mighty move by God (the beginning found here in Genesis 37). The reason I wanted us to cover so much about hineni and call stories before getting to Joseph is that we could easily be fooled into missing this as a call story. Partly because from here until the end of Genesis God doesn’t seem to do a lot out in the open…we have little clues all along that God is up to something, and involved, but nothing in-your-face. Honestly, that’s why I like Joseph’s story as an example of the way God calls out to us, because there is no burning bush. There is no voice-out-loud. It would be easy enough for Joseph to have convinced himself God wasn’t doing anything whatsoever. And that’s more like the call I think most of us know.
So here as his story starts, Joseph finds himself in the middle of the absolutely ordinary, the ridiculously day-to-day. On this particular day (in verse 12), Joseph’s dad asks him to go out and do what he has done many times — “Go find your brothers with the flocks.” And I guess whether he knew what he was saying or not, Joseph replied, “Hineni.” “Here I am, Father, at your service, I’m going for you.” And we find out that this simple, everyday Hineni is the start of some major ruckus/adventure for Joseph. Now, is that because he happened to use the magic word? I don’t think so. There are other clues that God is up to something extraordinary with him, like the fact that Joseph’s character, his heart, seems truly stout. We find that even as the second youngest out of like a dozen sons, Joseph is one that his father favors and trusts. It’s him that has integrity enough, fortitude enough, and faithfulness enough to keep an eye on his brothers’ work and report back in. Even though I’m sure those brothers were bigger than him, outnumbered him, and we hear that they grew to hate him over it. When dad sends him out, he doesn’t hesitate to go off by himself after them.
And there was another clue that Joseph was in the middle of a real call story. His dreams. The dreams that get him in more trouble with his brothers, dreams where they and even his father/mother are bowing down before him. Some point to Joseph sharing these dreams as signs of immaturity, or naivete, or just stupidity…or that he really was this self-centered, but from what we learn of his character elsewhere, I’m inclined to think he was just this honest. That he recognized God’s truth in the dreams (as we’ll see later), and was in wonder by it, unafraid to share it. Whatever the case, it’s even too much for his father, who rebukes him. But we hear something special in verse 12, his father also “kept the matter in mind.”
That phrase reminds of another parent in another story, this time a mother. In Luke 2, this pregnant mama is surrounded by a strange and awesome experience of God — she and her husband have narrowly made the journey to Bethlehem, there are shepherds showing up to greet their newborn son, visions of angels and stars in the heavens. It’s Mary, with Jesus, and in verse 19 we hear that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Like Joseph’s father, Jacob, these parents are attuned to the fact that God is working mighty things, that something special is afoot, and it involves their children. And the fact that they notice these things, and remember them, becomes a part of their children’s call stories — Mary being able to share the events around Jesus’ birth becomes part of the great story that points to him as the Messiah to come, and for Joseph one day these dreams will confirm what God has been up to.
It’s important to us that we have those folks in our lives who notice such things, and who care enough to remember them, and share them with us. It’s important we are that attentive, for ourselves and for others, because it will inform our call. For instance, some of you know my birth story. I was born in a bathroom at home because my mom went into labor that fast. My dad tells the story and has to lead people to believe I almost landed in the toilet (he was the one who delivered me after having read an emergency child-birth book). But Mom tells it very differently. Because for her the story began months and months ahead of time. You have to know that even among all our family’s preachers, my mom is probably the most spiritually-attuned, the most discerning, the most in touch with God daily. So, as a pregnant lady getting closer to a delivery date, she says she felt like she was getting a consistent message from the Lord: be ready. Hah! She says that the passage from Ecclesiastes 3, subtitled “A time for every season”, kept coming up for her, with its famous words describing a time for every purpose under heaven, including…”a time to be born.” As I understand it, leading up to the day that I arrived, she heard on the radio a song famous at the time sung by The Byrds:
A song that quotes exclusively from Ecclesiastes 3. And the message was clear, and on that fateful day her water broke, and I showed up in the bathroom. She took note, and appreciated that message as a word from God saying, “I’m watching out for you. Even in the midst of the craziness that’s about to happen, I’m here. I’ve got you and your baby in my hands.” I cherish the story because it makes up my call story. It’s easy for us all to doubt at one time or another how much we’re worth, or how much God loves us, and I’m no different. But when I think about this story, it’s easy to see that God cared for me before I was even born. That shapes what I run after and live for.
And I don’t share that story to say, “Ooooh, look at Josh’s call story, it’s so speciaaaal.” I share it because I wouldn’t even know it if my mom hadn’t passed it on to me, if she hadn’t remembered it or cherished it, or if she hadn’t been in tune enough to realize the message she was receiving. I share it because as personally inspiring as it is, I spend a bulk of my days forgetting about it completely, or doubting my purpose and God’s presence completely. It’s easy to let our stories blend into the mundane. See what I’m saying? There was something afoot in and around Joseph, and God was about it, with signs and hints to be detected. Jacob, his father, took note.
It is so terribly important for all of us, each called of God to things great and small, to be attuned to the hints that God is drawing us toward something. It’s time to be on the lookout, to be wary, because all of a sudden the question might come, “Will you go to ________?” or “Will you do ________?” or “Will you say ________?” or “Whom shall we send?” In that moment we have a chance to downplay and ignore the call, or flee from it, or postpone it…or to say, “Hineni!” Here I am, here and now, ready to roll. Even in the ordinary, day-to-day, Joseph responded that way, and we’re going to see where it landed him…