Sounds Like God

Eleven words and my focus was set.  Eleven words that showed up in the middle of our I Thessalonians passage that wrapped the message of the entire reading, and most of the book, into one thing – sincere lives that are genuinely noticed.

And, in those 11 words one of those words pulled me in by the collar and yelled at me ‘LOOK AT THIS!’

The word is exēchētai. We only see this word, in this form, used in this verse.

In most of our translations, this word is transcribed as our word ‘SOUND’ or ‘SOUNDED’ 

and in this particular greek word means ‘TO SOUND FORTH’.

The basic meaning can be referring to the volume or level of the sound itself, such as ‘It is loud,’ however, more often, it is used to described something that is that is very clear and precise – ‘Oh, that was really understandable’.  It is not referring to words or speaking, it is in fact our sound. It is the sound of our life that reveals our hearts.  It is the sound of our life that comes across clean and precise to which the world can say, ‘Oh, I get it.’ It is the sound that is heard long before words are spoken or actions are undertaken.

Much like a parade – you stand at your location as the participants walk, drive, or roll by. While you stand there looking at what is in front of you, you are always aware that there is a marching band in the parade and it is coming your way. You are unable to see it but you hear it, and then, after the band passes by, the sound lingers, and you continue to hear it even after it is once again out of sight.

In the instance of the Thessalonians, that sound that you are aware of before and even after – sounds like God

Silence my soul, these trees are prayers. I asked the tree, “Tell me about God;” then it blossomed.

Rabindranath Tagore

The believers in Thessalonica had blossomed, they had an amazing sound.  Their words, and more importantly, their actions of joy in the midst of persecution, hospitality to all persons, their unity even in disagreement, and their passion in serving God and serving all others. It was a sound that could not be dismissed – it came before them and stuck around after they left.  People were surprised, the Apostle Paul was amazed.

One of the regrettable circumstances of the modern evangelical movement is that words have taken priority over all else, more than actions of kindness and love, and presence – words, whether personal or scripted, have become the sound.  Without the sound of God, there is little that we hear that lasts.  Apart from God, our awkward or powerful words, our charm or pushy speech, all eventually fall short.

‘For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven,’

I Thessalonians 1:8-10a (NRSV)

Or, listen to vivid account from the paraphrase, The Message:

‘Do you know that all over the provinces of both Macedonia and Achaia believers look up to you? The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore—you’re the message! People come up and tell us how you received us with open arms, how you deserted the dead idols of your old life so you could embrace and serve God, the true God. They marvel at how expectantly you await the arrival of his Son,’

I Thessalonians 1:8-10a (MSG)

‘Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word’.  Imagine being told that, imagine your day to day life being described in that manner.  ‘Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word’. ‘Your are bringing the sound of God wherever you go.’

Surely they were beaming when they read Paul’s letter.

Paul is telling the believers in Thessalonica that God’s truth is being ‘Sounded’ by the them, sounded through words but even more through their presence, it was their sound. Their sound had created a life of its own. Their sound was attractive – their actions were contagious, their words were credible.   

Paul tells the believers that they are doing his job, they are doing what he came to do.  All the more amazing is that Paul is finding his own story now not being told to him instead of by him. Anything Paul tells the people, the listeners have already heard.  Paul is obsolete, they are telling HIM the truth.

Paul precedes his praise by giving an explanation of how the Spirit has done this work among the Thessalonians. We often view the work of the Spirit as being entirely ‘other worldly’, that the Spirit overtakes us and does what we have been unable or unwilling to do on our own. We see it as magical and apart from ourself – almost as if we are receiving a reboot and better software is downloaded into us to make us work better.

Paul points out pertinent elements to the Thessalonians transformation.

‘And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joyinspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.’

I Thessalonians 1:6-7

‘Became imitators of us and of the Lord’ -The people, entrenched in their life habits, beliefs, religious practices, view of God or gods, did not really know where to start, the Spirit pointed to Paul and his companions and to God. They watched and learned from their examples.

‘In spite’ – even though they were persecuted and their faith could endanger their lives, they still found a way to express truth in a subtle and quieter manner.  They found ways to ‘sound’ like Jesus, even though their ‘sound’ often had to remain silent. Their sound was amazingly effective.

‘Received’ – receiving the Spirit was a choice, in choosing they were aware that there would surely be things that they would have to reject, ways and practices of their lives that were not able to share space with the Spirit.  They ‘received’ without any guarantees of what they would look like in the future.

‘With joy inspired’ – This choice a ‘choice’ that could upend their ways of life, it could make enemies out of friends, it could threaten vocations, reputation, and position.  They chose regardless, this was their state of mind, they made a choice out of joy.

So that you became an example to all the believers – this is self explanatory, their joyful choice permitted them to not only become a visual image for others to follow, but it also gave credence to their words – to believers and non believers.

Paul also addresses the foundational factor in their witness as he says, 

‘Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.’

I Thessalonians 1:5b

The Thessalonians had not listened to Paul and his companions because of their eloquence or their charisma, it was not because of their status or their position, it was not because of the orchestrated emotion of the moment, nor was it due to a fear of the consequences.  They listened, and they followed, because they could see the ‘sound’ of these men’s lives. 

Their real, raw, and vulnerable sound.

Based on their experience with Paul and his companions, the believers chose to listen, they chose to follow, they chose to receive the Spirit, they mindfully chose to imitate these who genuinely pointed to God.  Their imitation of Paul landed them at the feet of God in the flesh, Jesus, who they then followed – much like the disciples of John the baptizer who ultimately followed Jesus.

We must recognize this process of trusting before listening and then listening before following took an extended period of time. Paul speaks of the delicate balance practiced in order to not be a burden to the church.  Paul made a choice to trust the intentional work of the Spirit, regardless of how long it took. Paul made a choice of personal vulnerability permitting the believers to hear his honest sound.  The Thessalonians soon hungered to have the same sound.

One other dynamic must be noticed in this story.  A culminating lesson for all believers, for all of us. The sound of the Thessalonians was not due to one individual, or even a small group of individuals, it was the result of all the individuals who together were the church at Thessalonica. Their combined sounds became the sound of the church at Thesslonica.

Michael Joseph Brown, President of Payne Theological Seminary, sums it up by saying.

‘If anything, [I Thessalonians] is about relationship and imitation. Paul makes this clear from the beginning. He says, “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution, you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit”. The apostle reminds us indirectly that human beings can only experience the fullness of their humanity when they are in deep, trusting relationship with one another. Even more, this relationship has more depth when it is experienced along with God. In addition, imitation becomes an outgrowth of this strong relationship.’

Michael Joseph Brown

This huge impression made by the Thessalonian church on other believers and non-believers alike, was as much about the whole as it was the individual. Those watching the sound of the individual believers at Thessalonica, which then became the sound of the church at Thessalonica was a sound that could not be dismissed.  People noticed the Thessalonians by their real, raw, and vulnerable sound.  

The outsiders saw the new sound that the Spirit created. In the midst of the believer’s trials – the community saw the Thessalonians at their most vulnerable – they saw that this sound could not be mitigated, even as politicians and the religious establishment sought to turn their sound off. Even inner disagreement of the church did not quiet their sound, in fact, the manner in which they worked through those disagreements made their sound even stronger.

It is the questions all churches must ask, it is the question we must ask.

Does our actual sound match the definition we have given to our sound? 

Do we seek, search, and stand on truth?

Are we actively searching for truth in all aspects of our life, in the way we live, in the way we respond to the world around us, in the way of our politics, in our presence, in our sound?

Do we meet the world with the embrace of Jesus?

Are we committed to seeing all humans as humans created by the same God who loves us all? Are we ready to embrace, without judgement and agenda, those who are of a different skin color, different religion, different nationality, those of a different political persuasion, those who are LGTBQI, the rejected, the despised, the alienated, those who make us uncomfortable?

Do we trust the affirming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the lives of others?

Are we committed to letting the Spirit decided the work that need to be done in each life or are we stuck with our own judgments and own ideas and agenda for other people, do we trust the change the Spirit wants to work in them and each of us?

What is the real, raw, and vulnerable sound of Grace Fellowship?

At 2:45pm, on a cold day mid December 2001, I stood with other parents on the ramp to Mrs. Cook’s pre K class at Monroe elementary school.  We were waiting until the bell would ring and our children would be match up with us and released.  As we stood waiting, we visited.  Most conversation, including mine on that day, did not end once the door opened and the matching process began.  As my child was match with me and released she ran to me with an undeniable sound that could not be ignored. I know this because I attempted to ignore the sound in order to finish my conversation.  Her sound was persistent however, and eventually the teacher’s aid got my attention and summoned me to take notice of my child’s sound.  The aide had a sound of her own which was communicated by the look on her face.  I took notice of Hannah’s sound. Santa Clause had visited the class that day and Hannah, as promised in her sound, was about to bust by her need to share all that she had learned about Santa and Mrs. Clause, about the reindeer and life at the North Pole, about the fact that Santa was trying to lose weight because he had not been eating right or exercising, although Christmas Eve did always manage to take a few pounds off him which delighted Mrs. Clause who was in much better shape and didn’t eat as much sugar, however, the most important thing, the thing that probably had the most influence on the sound of my daughter was that Santa Clause needed to quit eating so many cookies, it was very repetitive, and also not very healthy.  So, ironically, the children had suggested that they might leave pizza instead, an idea that seemed to greatly please Santa.  The sound of Hannah continued through Christmas Eve when we, in fact put out the much more healthy pepperoni pizza than the unhealthy sugar cookies, and then through Christmas morning when Hannah glowed at the note from Santa thanking her for remembering the pizza instead of the cookies.

What is the sound of your life?

What the sound of our life?

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