Choices – a sermon from 10/14/18

Remember the old joke about the psychiatrist who asked her patient if he has trouble making decisions?  The patient said, “yes and no.”

I was visiting with a wise person and I asked her, “What is the secret of your success?” She said, “Two words: right decisions.”

So I said, “how do you make the right decisions?” She said, “one word: experience.”

I said, “And how do you get experience?”  She said, “Two Words: wrong decisions.”

Our culture loves choices. This idea became crystallized for me one day a couple decades ago when I was in a grocery store and witnessed a man having a fit because that store didn’t carry the brand of cheese he was looking for. They had 50 other brands and types of cheese, but not the one he was looking for. I remember thinking he was being a little ridiculous – but I catch myself pulling similar stunts often: I know that if I want to have a glass of wine, I like pinot noir and I feel a slight sense of disappointment if I’m at a restaurant that has other reds but no pinot noir. I feel like Amazon has truly let me down if they don’t have the exact book I’m looking for – and of course, available in hard cover, paperback, kindle, and audiobook formats.

We are part of a culture that expects, even demands choices and selection. However, studies have shown that our brains easily get overstimulated and tired when we have too many choices. The more choices you make, the harder it becomes for your brain to make more because it gets tired.

And your brain makes impulse decisions when it’s tired.

It’s similar to how your muscles get tired at the end of a workout, the strength of your willpower fades as you make more decisions.

That’s why it can be helpful to make certain things into habits rather than choices – it saves your willpower for other choices if you have made it a habit to just exercise at a certain time each day – it’s not a choice anymore, it’s a habit. I’ve heard stories about some people who have five different shirts of the same style and color and five different pants of the same style and color – and that’s just what they wear for work. They have taken the decision-making about wardrobe completely out of their morning routine to save some of that mental energy for other tasks that are more important.

So, there are these thousands of little choices we make every day which can be tiring enough – but then there are the hard decisions that need to be made. How do we approach those and be sure we are making the right choices in life?

Our scripture for today has one of the most famous verses from the Old Testament. Joshua says to the gathered people of Israel, “Choose today whom you will serve. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

The Israelites have been traveling for forty years and are now in the Promised Land. They have endured much and are a vastly different group of people now than the group that left Egypt forty years before. We heard in the text as Joshua reminded them how God had been present with them through all the generations – through Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses. Joshua reminds them how God led them through the Red Sea to safety and a new land and blessed them with cities and vineyards and olive groves.

And now a moment has come – and they need to choose – do they want to choose to serve the old gods of their ancestors? Or do they want to choose the God of Israel who has guided them to where they are now?

There’s no more sitting on the fence. There’s no time for being wishy-washy. They must choose.

I wonder if it was a hard decision for any of them? I remember the first time I was in Norway asking someone why the old stave churches, which were Christian churches, had many symbols from the Viking era – carvings depicting Norwegian mythology, gods and goddesses. She said that although they were built as Christian churches, people still held those old stories of their ancestors very close and they mattered to them. Although they were Christians now, they didn’t let go of their old traditions overnight.

And I’m sure it might have been that way for the Israelites now as they were faced with whether or not to claim the God of Israel as their one and only God.

What’s the most difficult choice you have ever had to make? In Bible study this week we talked a bit about hard choices. Some talked about what it was like when deciding whether or not to have a pet put to sleep. Others mentioned trying to decide whether or not to move or if it was time to discontinue a treatment. We face difficult choices our whole life long – just as our ancestors have, and just as our descendants will.

So what are some key things to remember when making difficult choices? You can find good advice for that all over the place. We watched a TedTalk earlier this week and the presenter emphasized the importance of remembering that oftentimes there is no best choice – you are simply choosing the kind of person you want to become. It’s not necessarily better to choose one career over another or one place to live over another or one food over another – but you are deciding with each of those choices who you are becoming. A person who values city living or countryliving? A person who works with animals or works with numbers? A person who eats meat or not? Day by day our choices mold us.

What else to do when making a hard choice?

You could make the ever-popular lists of pros and cons. Just draw a line down a piece of paper and write down everything you can think of in favor of each item in the equation.

You could talk it out with someone – oftentimes just speaking out loud about what you are wrestling with can help a lot.

There are some important questions to wrestle with in a big decision: like asking yourself if you will regret if you don’t take that chance or make that leap; or ask yourself why you are hesitating – is it fear? Or who are you doing this for? And can you deal with any fallout afterward? Which decision feels most life-giving? Take time to live with those questions.

But you know, the interesting thing about this text is that it doesn’t end with that perfect cookie-cutter phrase that Joshua makes. “Choose today whom you will serve – as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”

No, it continues on – the people say they will follow God, they choose God – but then Joshua tells them they can’t do it. “You can’t do it!” The people double down and say again, ‘yes, we will serve the Lord – we choose to serve the Lord.”

But Joshua was right. They couldn’t do it – and we can’t do it. At least not on our own. The lesson from Joshua isn’t about how we as human beings need to just buck up and learn how to make good and sound decisions, become expert choice-makers. There’s something far greater going on here.

There’s lots of talk in the church about choosing God and deciding to follow Jesus – but our fits and starts of following God aren’t by any strength of our own. It’s God who gives us the courage and the desire to make that choice. Remember what Martin Luther wrote in the small catechism for the meaning of the third article of the apostles’ creed?

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

Yes, it is important to commit each day to following God – do our best to let God guide our actions day by day, to make good choices, but lean into God’s strength to do that. Our own strength isn’t enough – and God has promised to be with us. God is with us. Just as God was with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and Joshua and all the children of Israel and loved them. Loved them and led them as they complained in the desert and reveled in their new life in the promised land, God is with us, loving us and leading us toward home. Thanks be to God.

As you wrestle with the hard decisions you face, remember you are not alone. Call on God to help you and guide you and give you wisdom day by day. Lean into God’s strength, God’s grace, God’s wisdom. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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