Helpful counsel from Zack Eswine:
Consider sermon application as near and far.
As a boy I watched the children’s television show Sesame Street. A fuzzy and smiling, Muppet character scampered close to the television camera, as if to look at us viewers, and then says, “Near.” Then the Muppet scampered way back from the camera so as to create distance between itself and the viewer and says, “Far.”
Treating Joseph’s pit as an actual hole in the ground into which an innocent man is betrayed by his family is to promote a near application. Near application asks, “Does physical betrayal, separation from family, and wrongful enslavement happen to God’s people? Near application seeks closer resonance between our world and the features, conditions, and situations found in the biblical text.
Once near application has been addressed, the preacher then holds the rope between near and far. Picture a line of kindergarten children walking down the street for a field trip to the Sesame Street studio. A long rope connects those nearer and farther from the teachers at the head and back of the line. Each child holds on to the rope in order to stay connected with the line and not get lost from the group. Whenever preachers move from near to far application, they must help their listeners hold this rope in order to stay connected to the biblical context and not get lost from the intended meaning of the biblical passage.
One method for helping people hold on to the rope is, after exploring the near application, the preacher can say, “For Joseph and for many believers in the world, the pit from which we require God’s deliverance is physical. For others, there is no physical pit, but deliverance from God is nonetheless required.”
Once the preacher shifts from a physical pit and its resonance in our lives today, he has moved to a far application. Helping people hold the rope is necessary so that they learn to read and apply the Bible.
Far application exposes the dissonance between the original situation in the Bible and ours. Joseph was unique in his role with God; we are unlike him in many ways. For some of us that includes our inexperience with physical injustice.
A steady diet of far application, especially without holding the rope, leaves large regions of reality unmapped for people. It also teaches people to read and apply the Bible in a solely spiritualized way. If a preacher is discussing marriage from a passage such as 1 Timothy 1, we may be blessed by the sermon because true and biblical things are said. But it is still legitimate to ask, “Is Paul talking about marriage in 1 Timothy 1?” The answer is no. So how did the preacher get to the subject of marriage from 1 Timothy 1? To discuss marriage from 1 Timothy 1 is to veil the near application. Paul is talking about something that we are not hearing applied to our lives.
Perhaps a far application to marriage exists if we hold the rope. “Timothy was facing a struggle that he could not overcome by himself. For Timothy that struggle was his call to the ministry in the presence of physical threat and spiritual unbelief. That is what the struggle was for Timothy; what is the struggle for you?”
I tend to believe the near application is more important and the far application less necessary than we tend to think. The more we move toward far application, the more we need the practice of explicitly helping people hold the rope. We also have to account for the primary issue in the text that we are leaving unexplored for our lives.