Sunday, May 1, 2016

His Master's Voice

John 10:22-30

In 1898 English artist Francis Barraud painted a portrait of his brother’s dog, Nipper, that would go on to become one of the most recognized advertising logos of its time. The quizzical dog is shown peering into the horn of a phonograph machine. The image was eventually purchased by the Gramophone Company of London and the rights acquired by the American company, RCA. The icon was accompanied by the equally famous slogan “His Master’s Voice is Calling.”

Locals to this region of New York, will no doubt be familiar with the gigantic four ton likeness of Nipper erected on top of the Arnoff Moving company in Albany. It has been described as the largest man-made dog in the world!

The RCA logo certainly isn’t the only example of a dog being used in advertising. Dogs may be second only to babies in the affection and emotional response they produce in the hearts of people. People really love dogs. Have you noticed this? The affection isn’t one sided either. It is mutual. Dogs love people too! They have rightly been named as Man’s best friend. The relationship is older than history.

Scientists believe they have discovered the secret of the enduring affection between dogs and people. The reason in concisely summarized by the RCA Nipper logo, dog’s hear and recognize the human voice. Their brains are so wired that they are able to not only distinguish one human voice from another but also to recognize the subtle emotional clues in human speech. “Dogs use very similar brain mechanisms to process social and emotional information as humans do,” says one researcher, “This probably helps the dogs tune in to the feelings of their owners, and also probably helps humans tune in to the feelings of their dog.”

Scientist speak of this in terms of convergent evolution. Both of our species have independently developed similar survival skills that make us uniquely suited for one another. You might say that God created us for companionship with each other. There is something in dogs that corresponds to and compliments something in us.

At least part of what it means to be made in the Image of God means having a similar kinship with him. There is a capacity in us, part of our nature, which corresponds to something in God. Out of all the creatures in the earth, God created human beings in such a way that we can hear him and know him, that we can respond to his voice, and follow it. He made us able to have friendship with him.

I suspect most of us have more occasions to interact with dogs than with sheep, but sheep also have a similar capacity for voice recognition. Sheep have similar neural networks to humans which allow them not only to recognize other sheep but people as well!  To be sure, it is much simpler and less emotionally complex than what is found in dogs, but sheep can be trained to hear and respond to the voice of their shepherd. Anyone who spends any time with sheep will know this which is why Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

Like sheep with their shepherd, recognizing our Master’s voice comes with familiarity. We must be trained through acquaintance with his commands to distinguish his voice from the many other voices clamoring for our attention.  Jesus makes his remark about his sheep recognizing his voice in response to the people’s questioning of him. They say, “Tell us plainly are you the messiah?” Jesus in effect is saying, “if you were really acquainted with following God’s Word you would recognize me immediately just as sheep know their shepherd’s voice.”

When Odysseus returns home in Homer’s epic, the Odyssey, he comes undercover, disguised as a beggar, in order to surprise attack the greedy suitors who had taken over his house. He has been away for many years, and his disguise is so effective that no one recognizes his true identity. The only one to perceive the truth is his faithful dog Argos who lifts his tired old head and wags his tail at the approach of his master.

Similarly it is the very Word of God himself who appears to his people in the guise of their human nature in Jesus, but only the faithful are able to perceive who he really is. His voice is imprinted on their hearts and nothing can disguise his true identity from them.

How is it that we can develop the kind of familiarity with the voice of our Lord that we will recognize him when he is speaking to us in the circumstances of our lives? How can we learn to distinguish his voice and his guidance from the false teachers and imposters?

If we are sincerely asking these questions we are already on the right track! Because the first step to hearing and knowing God’s voice is to actually want to hear from him. When we open our hearts and listen for him, God will indeed speak to us. In fact God is more willing to speak to us than we are to listen! Although our hearts and minds are so often filled with distractions and competing affections that it can be difficult to make out the still small voice above the din. But Jesus promises, “Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.”

Hearing from God is however much more than just a subjective enterprise. We aren’t left merely to discern our own intuitions and impressions, because God has given us an authoritative record of his revelation in Holy Scripture. We should always test our private leadings with God’s word in the Bible, and we should always test our own interpretation of the Bible with the witness of the church down through the ages and the guidance of other Christians, because our own hearts and mind are so often deceptive.

Also, simple biblical literacy is not enough to recognize the voice of the Lord. It is not enough to merely read the bible as literature, or as ancient history, or even a theological treatise. All of those things are worth while, but on their own they won’t help us to know God. Knowing God through the scriptures means approaching them as more than just a dead letter, but as a living word. We need to come to them with the intention of being personally encountered by Christ through them.

Finally, we have to actually obey what it is he commands us. The more we seek to put into practice the words of God, the more of a living reality it will become in our lives. When we have the intention of hearing and obeying him, when we are accustomed to seeking his will, of filling our minds with his word, and imprinting his words on our heart, we will become personally familiar with his voice as our companion and teacher.

If we have this kind of relationship with Christ we will recognize when he speaks to us through the circumstances of our life. We will be able to discern whether it is actually him who is calling us to that new ministry or vocation. We will even be able to hear what he might be teaching us through that particular trial, sickness, or other affliction. No matter where or how he speaks we will be ready to obey and say, “My master’s voice is calling!”

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