“It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.” I have always been curious about this detail, but have never quite known what to do with it. I have also frequently been asked about the meaning of this time designation and have responded with my vast Johannine knowledge by saying, “well, I think it means the time of day.” Brilliant.
I have changed my mind. You can do that, you know, when it comes to interpreting Scripture. If you can’t, then the Word ceases to be living. All of a sudden, because of your time and place and space, you see something you overlooked. A word once buried in a passage rises to the surface and calls out to you. A verse resonates with something deep inside you that you simply cannot explain.
Our preaching, dear preachers, is always an exercise and then an embodiment of this very truth. Every single week we communicate that God’s Word is a word on target — radically contextual, situational, particular provisional, incomplete, contingent, immediate, reactionary, occasional, situational. The Word of God is living insists the truth of the incarnation.
“It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.” What is up with that? This is a tough one if you know anything about John. The importance of light and darkness, what light and dark represent. But four o’clock in the afternoon? Is it still light? Getting dark? What time of the year is this again? If the meaning isn’t something about being in the light or being in the dark, believing or not believing, why mention the time of day when these first disciples get to hang out with Jesus?
Here is where we have to think incarnationally. Since the incarnation is at the heart of John’s Gospel, that the Word became flesh, time matters and marking time matters. Life happens in time and we remember life with time. Important events are not general references — we don’t say, “our wedding was in the evening sometime” or “our baby was born sometime in the morning” or “grandpa died sometime in the afternoon.” No, we remember these moments with particularity. It was a Tuesday. It was 5:01. The event started at 4:00.
“I remember the specific moment he said that he loved me. I remember the exact moment she walked across the stage to accept her diploma. I remember the particular moment when I heard my diagnosis. I remember the precise moment when I heard about…” and now Fort Lauderdale.
This past week my youngest son got his driver’s permit. In the process of gathering all essential documents to bring to the test, he had the chance to peruse information about his life of which prior to this moment he was unaware. He was quite fascinated by his birth certificate, reading all of the details. He knew his birth date, but never knew the time he was born. “I was born at 1:45?” he asked. “Yes, you were. I remember the moment like it was yesterday. You see….” And off I launched into the chronology of his birth. Of course, he quickly lost interest after 9:07 when I talked about the euphoric benefits of an epidural. But, I think he got it. Life happens in time. He happened in time.
No wonder the time of the first encounter with Jesus had to be recorded. There’s no way you can forget that kind of moment, right? When did you first meet Jesus? “Well, it was about four o’clock in the afternoon….”
There are events in your life that time has to acknowledge. What are your personal events? What are your communal events? What are our national events? What are our global events? that then time helps us remember. Helps us feel. Helps us know that it mattered. Time anchors the event.
Can you name the time when you first met Jesus? Name the time you first realized how much Jesus loves you? Name the time when you knew that a life of ministry, officially or voluntarily, ordained or lay, was how you needed to be in the world?
Time matters in this story, not just to mark time, but to remind us of God’s time. That God entered into time when God didn’t have to. That God chose to be limited by time when God didn’t need to. That God decided time matters when omnipresence could give God a very easy out.
For these first disciples, about four o’clock in the afternoon was their first time, by invitation from Jesus, to abide. Not just to come and see, but to come and be. Outside of Jesus’ baptism in John 1:32-33 in reference to the Spirit, 1:39 is the first occurrence of the verb meno in John. You all know the meaning of meno — abide. Used no less than forty-plus times in John it is the primary word to describe the intimate relationship into which Jesus invites us.
To abide is to belong. To abide is to be saved (John 4:42). To abide is to be assured of a future with God (John 14:2). To abide is to feel a real and committed relationship (John 15:1-17). No wonder you remember four o’clock in the afternoon. Your first abiding with the Word of God can’t be some generic memory.
And presence in time is the promise of Epiphany. Epiphanic moments need timely demarcation. The incarnation anticipates and even demands timely matters. Why? Because time matters to God and our times matter deeply to God.