Text: Philippians 2:5-12
© April 17, 2011 by C. Edward Bowen at Crafton United Presbyterian Church.
They did a kind of experiment at a grocery store one day. What they did was they set up two different display tables that both had different kinds of jelly for sale. At the one table, they had 24 kinds of jelly to choose from, but at the other table they had only six kinds of jelly to choose from. Which of those tables do you think sold more jelly? It turns out it wasn’t even close. The table had only six kinds of jelly to choose from sold ten times as much jelly as the other table.
So the researchers running that experiment tried to find out why people made the decisions that they did. After all, it would seem logical that if you gave people a larger variety to select from – like that table with 24 jellies did – people would be more likely to find exactly the kind they wanted there, instead from the table that had a somewhat more limited selection. But what the researchers found is that people shied away from the table with 24 kinds of jelly on it because there were simply too many choices that they had to make. Even if a person ended up deciding to buy one of those 24 jellies, in order to say yes to that one kind, it meant that they had to decide to say no to the 23 other kinds. And overall, most people found that to be way too stressful, so they went over to the table that had just six kinds of jelly, where they had fewer decisions to make, and bought some jelly there.
In recent years, there has been a lot of research done and a lot of books written about what goes through people’s minds when they make decisions. For instance, several years ago when the Williams-Sonoma company first introduced a bread-making machine for $275, it was a huge flop. Most people thought that the price was way too high. But after doing research on how people make decisions about what to buy or not to buy, the company decided to come out with an even larger bread-making machine that cost 50% more. The result was that all of a sudden the original break-making machines that still cost $275 started flying off the shelves. What the researchers had found was that since bread-making machines were relatively new at that time, most people didn’t have any idea what a bread-making machine should cost. But when they were suddenly presented with a choice between a larger, more expensive model and a smaller, less expensive model, people figured that the smaller, less expensive model had to be the better deal and that’s what they decided to buy.
Decisions, decisions. As we gather here on Palm Sunday and enter into Holy Week, have you ever noticed that the Holy Week story is largely a story about the decisions that certain key people made? First off, the story of Holy Week concerns the decision that Judas made when he decided to betray Jesus. As you recall, Judas decided to accept a bribe of 30 silver coins in order to show the authorities where they could find Jesus to arrest him. As far as the Gospel writers are concerned, Judas based his decision on greed, with some of the Gospels even saying that Judas had a pattern of greed, accusing him of also regularly stealing money from the disciples’ treasury.
At a distance of two thousand years, most of us probably
shake our heads at Judas and say that we wonder how he could have done what he
did. But are there times in our lives
when we make decisions based on greed, based on money? It’s like a holy man from
But in addition to the decision that Judas made, the Holy Week story also reminds us of the decision that Peter made. As you’ll remember, after the guards came and arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter quietly followed at a distance so that he could see what would happen to Jesus. And while Jesus was being put on trial in the house of the high priest and as Peter stood outside warming himself next to a fire, three different times people came up to Peter and asked him if he wasn’t one of Jesus’ disciples. And three times Peter vehemently denied that he even knew who Jesus was. I suppose we could say that Peter made his decision by deciding to play it safe.
It’s like the story of a priest who was called to the bedside of a dying man. The priest said to the fellow, “Denounce the devil, and tell him how little you think of his evil.” But the man made no response. So again the priest said, “I urge you to denounce the devil and reject his ways.” But again the man made no response. So the priest asked him, “Why are you refusing to denounce the devil?” The man said, “I want to play it safe. Until I’m sure which way I’m headed, I don’t really want to tick off the wrong person.” Are there times, like with Peter, when we make decisions that are based simply on playing it safe?
But yet another person in the Holy Week story who makes an important decision is the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. The religious leaders know that they are not legally allowed to put Jesus to death unless they get permission from Pilate. But Pilate comes right out and says that he doesn’t see that Jesus is guilty of any offense that warrants death, and so Pilate is inclined to just release Jesus and let him go. But when the religious authorities stir up the crowds and they all begin chanting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”, Pontius Pilate decides to go along with the crowd and he hands Jesus over to be crucified. Are there times when, like Pontius Pilate, we make decisions based on popular opinion, when we make decisions based on fitting in with the people around us?
Shortly before the time of Jesus, the Romans came up with a saying: vox populi vox dei. Simply put, the Roman saying vox populi vox dei means “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” And even today, thousands of years after the Romans coined that phrase, we still tend to believe those words – the voice of the people is the voice of God.
We show our belief in those words by the way we govern ourselves. In the federal government, and at the state and local levels as well, it seems that leaders rarely ever struggle anymore with trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do. Instead, when it comes time to make decisions, leaders tend to focus on only one thing: What do the opinion polls say? And if a majority have a certain opinion, government leaders often figure that that’s what they should go along with. After all, they figure, the voice of the people is the voice of God.
But in the Holy Week story we encounter one more person who makes a decision – and that person is Jesus. And Jesus makes his decision based not on greed, based not on playing it safe, based not on popular opinion. Instead, Jesus makes his decision based on what it is that God wants him to do.
We need to realize that not only was Jesus fully divine, but he was also fully human. And like any human being, Jesus didn’t want to die. And so there in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prayed, he asked God, he begged God, that if there was some way that he could do God’s will and not have to die on the cross, he prayed that that could happen. But in the end, he prayed that no matter what, that God’s will be done.
And in the same way, in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard here this morning, Paul urges that the same mind that was in Jesus might also be in each of us. That just as Jesus’ mind was set above all else on deciding to do God’s will in his life, that deciding to do God’s will in each of our lives might be our highest priority as well.
An ancient Christian who lived in the deserts of Egypt named Isidore the Priest once said, “of all the evil suggestions, the most terrible is the prompting to follow your own heart.” Do you hear what he was saying? According to that ancient Christian leader, the worst thing we can do with our lives is to just follow our own hearts, to just do what we feel like dealing. By saying that, his point was to remind us that when we go to make decisions in life, we shouldn’t base those decisions simply on what we feel like doing at the moment, but instead we should make decisions based on what it is that God would have us do.
Are we willing to have the same mind, the same mindset, in us that was in Jesus? If so, then we need to be willing to resist the temptation to make decisions based on greed or based on what’s safe or based on what’s popular. And instead, if we want to have the same mind, the same mindset, in us that was in Jesus we need to be willing to pray like Jesus did and take the risk of praying, “God, thy will be done. God, help me to make the right choices and decisions so that your will might be done in my life.”
 Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Switch: How To Change When Change Is Hard [New York: Broadway, 2010], p. 51.
 Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions [New York: HarperCollins, 2008
“Relentless quest for money leads to starkest form of moral poverty,” The
 Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Minks, and a Writer’s Life [New York: Riverhead, 2008], p. 138.