Sunday, July 12, 2020

Sermon: "Make A Joyful Noise: Go, Tell It on the Mountain", Isaiah 55:10-13 (July 12, 2020)


Do you all remember what it’s like applying to jobs? I sure do. Personally, I didn’t mind the ones that gave you an actual application form too much, but I HATED the ones that required a resume. It’s not that I had a problem sharing my employment history with potential employers (although early on, it was hard to make three years of babysitting fill up an entire page). No, what I hated about it was the fact that submitting a resume also requires writing a cover letter. Did you ever have to write one? Did you struggle with them as much as I did? As I understand it, a cover letter serves several purposes: it’s primarily a matter of etiquette, thanking the employer for their time and consideration, but it’s also an opportunity to grab the employer’s attention. A good cover letter hits the highlights of your job history and connects the dots as to why you’d be a good fit for the position. It summarizes you as an employee in a way that compels the employer to want to know more. It’s basically the Cliffsnotes of your resume.

Great idea in theory! So why did I hate writing them so much? Well, it’s stressful trying to distill who you are into a few short paragraphs in a way that’s both informative AND compelling! How am *I* supposed to know what this particular employer is going to want to hear?? So I have to admit that sometimes, if I was particularly worn out from job searching (which we all know is itself a full-time job) or if I had no clue what to highlight from my job history, I’d just copy and paste a cover letter that I’d already written for a previous job. I mean, it wasn’t ideal, but it was better than just not applying at all, right?

It occurs to me that evangelism, sharing the good news with others, is kind of like presenting a cover letter for God’s resume. There’s so much good stuff in there, but we have to distill it to the most important parts so that we can intrigue our audience and get them interested in learning more. And for many of us, evangelism is exactly as intimidating as writing a perfect cover letter (which is to say, very). So, we look for shortcuts. We recycle familiar messages that have worked for us in the past. Reading over the lyrics of “Go, Tell It on the Mountain”, it strikes me that this song is a really good example (in a way, ALL Christmas Caroling is technically just plagiarized evangelism). It hits the highlights of God’s resume in a way that gets the message across efficiently, and with its upbeat tune and catchy refrain, it definitely draws the listener in. It’s a pre-written, time-tested summary that we can use to share the gospel! Go, tell it on the mountain, because the words are already right there for you, so you might as well.

But just because the words are true doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the right words for the moment. As with any cover letter, the more personalized your message is, the better it does its job. If you were only applying for jobs at grocery stores, copying and pasting the same cover letter would probably work out fine, but what if you wanted to apply at grocery stores AND shoe stores AND office jobs AND restaurants? The same highlights wouldn’t have an equal effect in all of these places. The same is true for evangelism: your message gets across far better when you customize it to each unique context.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with sharing the gospel in the form of a familiar hymn, but there’s so much more to the good news than just the Christmas story! With everything happening in the world today and humanity’s glorious diversity, the odds are that something like “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” won’t be enough to intrigue your audience every single time. If we get lazy and evangelize to everyone in the same way and with the same words, the message will stop being compelling and people will stop paying attention. Which defeats the whole purpose of evangelism.

It can feel risky to shift from a tried-and-true message, but it’s so important. In the early 1960s, the American folk group Peter, Paul and Mary decided to give God’s cover letter an update, because they thought that attention needed to be drawn in that moment to a different part of God’s resume. They recognized that in the context of the Civil Rights struggle, humanity didn’t need to hear the comforting message of the nativity; they needed to hear a more challenging message from Exodus. So, they rewrote the familiar old cover letter in their own words: “Go, tell it on the mountain/Let my people go”.[1] The audience’s context was different, their needs were different, so the focus of the message needed to change in order to capture their attention. Of course, we can’t all be as innovative as Peter, Paul and Mary, and anything is better than nothing. But our ability to draw people to God’s Word increases dramatically when we can figure out a new way to show how it applies to life RIGHT THIS MOMENT.

Trust me; I know how difficult it is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started working on a sermon (a different type of “cover letter” for God’s resume) only to get frustrated because I can’t think of anything new to say. Sometimes I’m tempted to stop creating new sermons and just start recycling the ones I’ve already written, especially when I think about the 35 years of writing I still have ahead of me! I get exhausted just thinking about it! But then I remember what God says in Isaiah 55: “[The Word that goes out from my mouth] shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” In other words, God’s resume speaks for itself!

Unlike most of us, God isn’t papering the whole town with resumes in the expectation that most of them will go directly into the recycling bin. If God sends God’s Word into the world, God expects it to be heard, somehow, someway. It’s not a matter of “if”, but “when”. OUR job is to hook people, to convince them to look a little closer, to help them understand why it matters…but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if your cover letter is as well-crafted as a commercially produced Peter, Paul and Mary song, or as inelegant as the early auditions on American Idol. As long as you make an earnest, heartfelt effort to share the gospel in a way that speaks to your context, God will do the rest.

So, now that the pressure’s been lifted a bit, you can start to feel more comfortable “improvising” and making your evangelism your own. It can be less of a formal speech and more of a relaxed conversation. You can branch out from your old “copy and paste” technique and start really engaging those you’re trying to reach. I think you’ll find that the more you practice, the more natural this feels. Writing new cover letters for God becomes less of a chore. Eventually, you’ll find that something incredible is happening: evangelism transforms from an act of duty to an act of joy! I swear. The panic of trying to figure out how to explain your faith to another person fades into excitement at the opportunity to tell how God has changed your life. As Isaiah promises, “You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace.”

Isaiah also promises that “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” See, THIS kind of evangelism is infectious. If you were an employer, would you rather read a cover letter that basically says, “I believe that I would be a good fit for [insert position here]; thank you for your consideration,” or one that says, “I’m SO excited for the opportunity to work for your company, because it’s already been an important part of my life for a long time, and I’d love to tell you about it”? The more personal your testimony, the more enthusiastic you’ll be. And the more your “cover letter” reflects your enthusiasm, the more compelled someone will feel to know more.

At the end of the day, the message contained in God’s resume is timeless: God loves you. The stories of Scripture are time-tested and speak for themselves. But our context is ALWAYS changing, and so we need to keep helping each other understand how this resume, this good news, applies to us today. So what is it that you’re being called to “go tell on the mountain”? Where have you seen God’s love move in real ways in your life? What modern context is the gospel urgently speaking to right now? What do the people around you need to hear today? Don’t be afraid to speak up. The world needs to hear why this message from thousands of years ago is relevant to our current situation. We all need to hear how God is still speaking—about justice, about unconditional love, about repentance, about mercy, and about salvation. So start working on that cover letter…you’ve got some great material to work with. And don’t worry—it’ll definitely get the job done, just as long as you get the Word out. Amen.


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