The Night Shift: A Sermon Based on John 1:35-42 I’m guessing that somewhere along the way you’ve heard someone say, “The devil is in the details.” Or flipping that equation around, sometimes the expression is, “God is in the details” (we lose the alliteration but gain hope!). I looked it up and discovered that the more hopeful phrase is the older phrase, but either way, both are pretty effective in reminding us that details are important. Whether they come in planning a party or congressional testimony or designing a passenger plane, details deserve and even demand our attention.
Of the four gospels, John’s might have the most interesting details. For instance, there’s that scene at the end of the story where the resurrected Jesus is standing on the shore of the lake and yells out to the exhausted disciples who have gone back to their old jobs that they should try casting their nets on the other side of the boat. They’d been fishing all night and were about to head in with nothing to show for it. But they grumble and sigh and heave-ho their nets one more time – and lo and behold they catch so many that they nearly capsize the boat. But for John it’s not enough to say they caught a boat-load of fish; no, Johns says they caught 153 fish, to be precise. I’m not entirely sure why he included that detail, but he also tells us that some of those fish were cooked for breakfast on a fire that Jesus had laid out on the beach – but not just any fire: a charcoal fire. That’s another detail that could easily get lost in the translation (and does actually in the Message) but it would be a shame, since the last time we heard about a charcoal fire in John’s gospel was when Peter was warming his hands around one in the courtyard of the high priest while Jesus was inside being interrogated. It’s a detail that makes us wonder: what did Peter see when he saw that fire? Did he remember the devil hissing at him on a cold night outside of the high priest’s house? Or does he experience God’s grace getting the last word? What’s in that detail?
Today’s reading includes another curious detail that might be easy to miss, and certainly might not be as important as I’m thinking it could be. But I’ll mention it anyway. It’s the line that comes after the two disciples go and see where Jesus is living and end up hanging out with him the whole day. It reads: “It was late in the afternoon when this happened.” Or in other translations, “It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon” (v.39).
So why would John want us to know that? Why that particular detail? I guess one obvious answer is that this is how the story was told to him and he was simply trying to be accurate in his reporting. No fake news in the Good News.
But since this is John doing the writing, I’m going to assume that maybe his mention of the time of day when those disciples met Jesus and followed him home is more than “just the facts, ma’am.”
It seems to me that John is a brilliant story-teller who uses words not only to report events but to paint complex, layered pictures and reflect his understanding of the reality of his times. More than any other gospel John draws on the contrasting images of light and darkness, day and night to help us get a better sense of the deep, spiritual currents flowing through people’s lives and shaping their choices and imaginations. We might even say that John is the Star Wars of the gospels, since he is trying to demonstrate the existential struggle between the loving grace of God and the dehumanizing forces of the powers that be in this world. And he is realistic enough to confess that much of the time it looks like the darker forces are winning. At the very beginning of his story of Jesus, John says that the light of Christ is shining and will not be overcome – BUT, it is shining in a world that is fundamentally dark, a world that refuses or is unable to recognize the goodness and truth of Jesus and his movement towards justice and peace. To walk with Jesus in John is to walk through a very dark place. Those who are curious about Jesus but unwilling to commit to his community come to see him at night, like Nicodemus the Pharisee. And those who want to silence God’s Word also come to arrest him under cover of darkness, as do all murderous hate groups who strut around with torches and guns and hoods. Even those first faithful disciples end up getting drawn back into the fruitless dark waters of fishing after sundown, at least for one night. In John, darkness is not just descriptive of the time of the day, but of the times themselves.
So when John mentions that the first two followers of Jesus (Andrew and a disciple to be named later) came to him “late in the afternoon,” I think that should give us pause. What might it mean that the beginning of a relationship with the One who is not only the Lamb of God but the Light of the World would commence sometime near the end of the day, when the light is fading?
Now I need to tell you that late afternoon is usually one of my favorite times of the day. Especially if I’ve been able to get some work done, or at least get to a good stopping place. Late afternoon, like it was several times during the strange spring we experienced this past week, can be a time of soft sunlight caressing us through the trees, a time for taking a deep breath, a time for looking forward to a good meal and slowing down and a favorite show and some rest. Even if it’s been a bad day, late afternoon signals that relief is in sight.
All of which I can look forward to because I enter the late afternoon every day from a place of privilege. As the light fades and the shadows lengthen, I know that I have a safe house to retreat to, and a reliable car to get me there. I will most likely not be stopped by the police on my way. I have friends and family who love me and wait for me. I have my health. And when the sun comes up the next day, I have meaningful work to do and the joy of working with others who share a similar vision of the Beloved Community (as King would name the promise of God).
But I also know that late afternoon is not a favorite time for everyone. If you are caring for an older adult with Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia, late afternoon can be a time when that person starts to experience a heightened form of stress and anxiety that is sometimes called “sundowning,” or Sundown Syndrome. And if you are poor or unhoused then late afternoon means you better get to the safest place you can find real quick; nighttime is almost never a time of rest if you are living on the streets.
The writer of John’s gospel was addressing a community of folks that had been kicked out of their hometown synagogue. They were very likely estranged from their family and friends because of their commitment to the way of Jesus that was centered in loving the enemy. And the evil Roman Empire was not going anywhere soon. For them, it probably looked like the sun was setting instead of rising; the shadows were falling quickly, and the wind was picking up. John, I think was trying to offer a realistic setting for their relationship with Jesus. Or as Dylan put it, “Let us not talk falsely now/ the hour is getting late.”
So when I think of those disciples connecting with Jesus late in the afternoon, I think of them getting invited into the life of someone who has a special place in his heart for nightshift workers, for those who do the often unseen and thankless work that goes on while the rest of us are asleep. It’s like he’s saying, Come on home with me. I will give you rest and a good meal. I’m going to nourish you and fortify you because I’m also needing you to go back out into this dark world to be my light. Go back out and be my nightshift workers. Go back out and make sure that those who are hungry and scared have food to eat and a safe place to find healing and hope. Go out and tell the truth about what time it is in the life of this planet that is groaning and as vulnerable as children at the border or refugees in Syria. Go and tell the truth that love and forgiveness are stronger than any gun. Go and tell the truth as clearly as my servant Martin who said, “As long as there is poverty in this world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy, even if I just got a good checkup at Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.”
Brothers and sisters, it is not yet twelve noon, but it is already late in the afternoon. It is high time that we center our lives and our imaginations in the way of Jesus Christ. Only by following him will we see a new and beautiful day. Amen.