Choose Your Own Adventure – Rev. Amanda Wagner
January 18, 2015 (Second Sunday after Epiphany)
Psalm 139:1-18, John 1:43-51
Have you ever seen a Choose Your Own Adventure book? I used to love reading them when I was young. They are books where, every few pages in the story, you are given a choice of how to continue. Each choice sends you to a different part of the book and to another choice, until you reach the end of the story.
But the really great thing about the Choose Your Own Adventure books is that if you start over and make different choices, you’ll reach a different ending. Each book might offer 30 to 40 different stories, and each story has its own unique ending – some of which are good, and some are not so good.
Whenever I would read those books, I wasn’t satisfied with just reading through it once. So as I progressed through the story, I would put a bookmark in each page where I made a choice. Then when I reached the end of one adventure, I’d go back and start again from the last choice I made. I’d do this until I had exhausted all the possible choices to be made, and had experienced all of the different outcomes. I guess you could say that I chose all of the adventures.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t always offer up a redo when we make a bad choice. Have you ever said something about someone, never intending for that person to hear it, but somehow it always seems to get back to them? I suppose we all have. And after the fact, there’s this moment when you really wish you hadn’t said anything at all, but of course by that time it’s too late.
I wonder if Nathanael felt that way after he met Jesus. When Philip met Jesus, he immediately ran to tell his friend Nathanael that they had found the guy that the prophets had written about: “It’s Jesus, the son of Joseph of Nazareth!” And probably without even thinking, Nathanael replied with a smart-aleck crack, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
But Philip urged Nathanael to come and see, and to his credit, Nathanael did come and see. And the moment that he approached Jesus, he knew the answer to his question. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Yes. Absolutely. Even if Nathanael never meant any harm by his offhanded comment, it still could have really hurt Jesus. And Nathanael recognized immediately that Jesus was someone special, someone who knew his heart.
There’s a sickening feeling we get in the pit of our stomachs, when we realize that we’ve said something that can’t be unsaid, something that might have been really hurtful. Especially when we, like Nathanael, come to the realization: “Oh no. I just said something stupid. And he knows that I said it, and I know that he knows what I said!” It’s not a very pleasant feeling, is it? And there are basically two ways of dealing with the situation. We can ignore it and hope it goes away, or we can confront it, deal with it, and move on.
When I was in college, I spent a summer interning at a church in the area. It was part of a fellowship program through the college, and we were given a small stipend to cover our living expenses. The money came out of the grant that funded the fellowship program. It was the first year that they were offering the stipend, and as can be expected, there were a few glitches to work out.
Halfway through the summer, the program director still hadn’t been able to process our stipends, though he assured us that the money was coming. I was lucky; I was able to stay with one of the parishioners, and could walk to my internship site, but some of my colleagues were struggling to pay for gas and other daily expenses.
In a moment of frustration, I wrote an angry email to the director, telling him that I didn’t think the situation was high enough on his priority list. The moment I hit send, I got this sinking feeling in my stomach. I knew that I had said something pretty stupid, and sure enough, he responded right away, letting me know that he really was doing all he could to get the stipend processed as quickly as possible.
I felt like a fool. And the worst part was that the group was soon going on a retreat weekend, and I was going to have to face the director, knowing that I had said some pretty hurtful words to him. Oh, to be able to go back and make a different choice, to not say the words, to not send the email…
There are so many times when we can look back at the mistakes of our past and wish that things had been different. What if we had made different choices? What if we hadn’t rushed into something? What if I had stopped to think for a moment before clicking send? Those “what if” moments really have a way of haunting us.
What if Jesus had decided to go somewhere else instead of Galilee? What if Philip hadn’t gone and told his friend Nathanael about Jesus? What if Nathanael had stayed under the fig tree? What if Nathanael hadn’t blurted out some smart remark? What if Jesus had let Nathanael’s comment get to him and hadn’t called Nathanael to be a disciple?
We can become absolutely paralyzed by the “what ifs.” We can become so afraid of messing up that we never do anything. And we can be so afraid of admitting our mistakes and dealing with the consequences of our actions that we become consumed with guilt or regret. I finally did muster up the courage to apologize to my advisor, but I’ve gotta tell you that it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, to look him in the eye and admit my mistake.
It wasn’t admitting that I made a mistake that bothered me. I make mistakes all the time. But I was embarrassed that I had said something so foolish and that I might have hurt his feelings, and it was really hard for me to get past my guilt and embarrassment. But when I finally talked to him, he accepted my apology immediately, gave me a hug, and then it was as if nothing had happened. That was truly a moment of grace.
When Philip and Nathanael approached Jesus, Jesus could read everything on Nathanael’s heart, including that question. Yet Jesus met Nathanael’s skepticism with grace. He dismissed Nathanael’s thoughtless comment by saying, “Well, here comes an honest fellow! There’s no deceit in this guy!” It was as if Jesus was saying “Yeah, Nazareth is an insignificant little village, yet here I am!”
That must have been both mortifying and humbling for Nathanael, as he came to the realization that he was approaching the Son of God. Just a moment before, Nathanael had made a careless, offhand comment, and in doing so had made a total fool of himself. But Jesus gracefully dismissed the remark, and showed Nathanael that this was just a drop in the bucket compared to all the grace-filled moments that he would experience as a disciple.
So, what about all those “what ifs”? We don’t live in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and we don’t always have the option of going back and making a different choice. But that’s where God’s grace comes in. God already knows about each choice that we have made and are going to make. In Psalm 139, David wrote, “O God, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”
But the choices we make, the adventures we choose, are still our own. Even Jesus, who was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism and completely in tune with God’s will, had to sort out his options and make his own decisions. It was his choice to go to Galilee that day, and because of that choice he found Philip and Nathanael and called them to be his disciples.
The Psalm continues, “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 right hand shall hold me fast.”
We are presented with many, many choices in life, and they are our decisions to make. We can choose to do things the easy way, living a life of honesty and integrity. Or we can choose to do things the hard way, making not so great choices and perhaps some foolish comments.
And when we make a bad choice, and we will, then we have to deal with the consequences of that choice. But either way, whether we choose to live a heavenly life or “make our bed in Sheol,” God promises to be right there with us.
Unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where each ending is different, there is only one ending to this life. Verse 18 states, “I come to the end – I am still with you.” That’s what grace is. That no matter who we are, or what we do, or what we say, God’s not going anywhere.
We’re human. There are going to be times when we screw up, when we say or do the wrong thing. But in those moments, we can admit our mistakes and choose to accept the grace offered by God, who has promised to love us no matter what.
God knows us completely, just like Jesus knew and could see into the very heart of Nathanael. And in those little moments of grace, we are offered a glimpse into the greatness to come. Jesus said to Nathanael, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You’re going to see even greater things than that!”
Within this Christian community, as we work and learn and grow together, there will be times when we make hasty decisions, snap judgments, or glib remarks. Yet those bad choices don’t have to lead to more bad choices. When we hurt someone, we can choose to admit our mistake and seek to make things right. And when we are the one who is hurt, we can choose to offer mercy and forgiveness.
With every choice that we make, good or bad, and with every moment of love and grace that we experience, we are reminded of the psalmist’s promise: that when we come to the end of this life, God will still be with us. And as Jesus told Nathanael, those moments of grace are nothing compared to the even greater things that God has in store for us. Amen.