You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings,
but an open ear.
You do not ask for holocaust and victim.
Instead, here am I.
Psalm 39 : 7
‘Instead, here am I.’
Just letting that sink in… I often find it quite easy to get caught up in the complicated and flashy things I think I ought to do as a Christian theologian. You know, books and articles I ought to write, and the spiritual and mental toughness I ought to develop in order to be the person who can write books and articles, and give lectures, and still remain as humble as St Benedict says I should be.
Yeah, right. There is something completely naked and vulnerable about that statement: ‘here am I.’ Just me, nothing fancy. No extravagant sacrifice, no spectacular holocaust, just the handmaid of the Lord. I always liked the spectacular holocaust: Elijah vs the prophets of Ba’al (I Kings 18) has always been one of my favorite Bible stories, since I was a child. It’s like fireworks from heaven, and the good guy wins in a show of light and power. But that’s not what it is about at all. It is about the open ear that the Psalmist identifies as the real sacrifice, the real offering to God. God requires of us nothing more and nothing less than our attention, wholly fixed on him.
The bit about Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Ba’al in I Kings 18 that my mother didn’t relate to me when I was little, is the part where the prophets of Ba’al entreat their god, who doesn’t seem to be listening. “So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them” (18: 28). Not only do they harm themselves in their endeavor to get Ba’al to respond to them, but they do so in vain. There is no response. Elijah, on the other hand, calls on God to answer, “that this people [Israel] may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their heart back again’ (18: 37). The return of God’s people originates with God: God responds with fire to demonstrate that he has already rekindled the hearts of his people. It is not what the people do to get God’s attention that is the heart of the drama, but what God does to get their attention, to get our attention.
When I present myself, fragile and fallen as I am, God does not ask for my blood. When I come before God having done the wrong thing, or the right thing for the wrong reasons, or having done nothing when I ought to have acted, God doesn’t ask for my blood. God has already acted; it is only by the Spirit’s encouragement that I return at all. When I say “here am I,” it is because God has called me first, and even as I ask for forgiveness and the strength to walk in it, I do so because that grace has already been extended to me. That grace alone makes me the handmaid of the Lord, ready to do his will.
God does ask for my life, to be sure, but that is only so that he can give it back to me, in abundance. And then when I say the “I” in “here am I,” it is no longer I who live and speak, but Christ who lives and speaks in me, giving my life as he gave his, to the Father for the sake of the world’s salvation.
And that is an extravagant gift indeed.