He hollered and red-faced rebuked us! His text was, “do not be anxious about anything . . .” (Phil. 4:6) He scolded us for our anxieties and corrected us for our lack of trust in God. Then he read the next bit of the text. “but in everything by prayer . . .” (Phil. 4:7) Thunder rose in his eyes as he began to decry the absence of prayer in our lives and in our generation. Our sinful prayerlessness became his rant and the sermon raged on.
Notice the Tone of the Text
Strengthening this sermon begins with attention to the audience and tone of the text. To begin, the book of Philippians doesn’t rage at us. Its theme is joy! And, remember Paul’s tone. He says things like, “I thank my God for all my remembrance of you.” (1:3) “how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus,” (1:8) “my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown . . .” (4:1) Right before he speaks of our anxieties and our prayers he says, “Rejoice in the lord . . . let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” (4:4-5) Our point is this: When Paul told us about our anxieties and our prayers, he did so, not with red-faced rebuke, but with kind and pastoral affection and instruction to earnest, beloved and relationally struggling followers of Jesus.
Notice the Audience Receiving the Tone
In contrast, the Apostle urges these beloved followers of Jesus to “look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers.” (Phil. 3:2) Here, Paul calls people names. Notice however who he does not have in mind. First, Paul does not have in mind the earnest followers of Jesus that he writes to. This should give us a clue that we are misguided then if we use his letter to preach a sermon from it that takes a name-calling tone to the earnest followers who listen. Second, Paul does not refer to those who do not believe in Jesus. Therefore it is a mistake to preach a sermon from this text that takes a harsh or mocking tone toward listeners who are not Christians. Third, therefore, we remember that Paul called “dogs,” those who were inappropriately conservative and religious. These were “the circumcision;” pew-sitters and committee members that legalistically required adherence to aspects of Old Testament ceremonial law for a person to be saved in Jesus.
Play Match Game
When my kids were young we played “match game.” The game is played with cards that are laid face down. The goal is to turn up two cards that have the same number. Similarly, our sermon application is strengthened when we too match the tone of the text to the audience in the text who is receiving the tone. Otherwise, two problems occur. Either we preach with a tone the author of Scripture did not use when writing or preaching the very same text. Or we mismatch a tone to an audience member in a way that the Scripture doesn’t. In other words our voice has little resonance with the manner or intended audience given to us in the text. We don’t sound much like what God meant for us to sound when seeking to hear Him in this particular text. What tools can we use to help us more closely match tone and intended audience when applying our sermon?
Categories of Hearers
First, lets remember some wisdom from preachers who have preceded us. Some of these preachers, such as William Perkins or J.I. Packer identified something they called, “Categories of Hearers” for our sermons. I’ve co-opted their insights into the following language. Whenever we preach notice that in the text and among our listeners there are basically two categories of hearers; those who are hard hearted and closed toward what you are saying and those who are soft-hearted and teachable to what you are saying. Hard-hearted followers and non-followers of Jesus are resistant, unteachable, stubborn and sometimes defiant. Soft-hearted followers and non-followers of Jesus are interested, teachable, active in conscience. To play match game, notice the tone Paul takes in Philippians 3:2 with hard hearted religious folks. In contrast, notice the tone Paul takes in Philippians 4:6-7 with soft-hearted believers (even those who are struggling relationally with each other in 4:2, “I entreat . . .”)
Use the tool: “For Some of You”
Elsewhere Paul has given us a clear text to aid us in our match game of tone and audience for sermon application. “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all.” (1 Thess. 5:14) We do not want to admonish the fainthearted or the weak. We do not want to encourage the idle. And whether we are rebuking or encouraging our tone and presence must carry the quality of the Spirit’s fruit of patience. So how do we do this in a congregation with varying soft and hard hearted listeners? One tool is the phrase, “For some of you.” When applying “prayer” for example to the soft-hearted we begin with something like, “Now for some of you, you are cut to the heart already,” or “this is brand new to you and you are saying to yourself, ‘wow I never knew this before.'” Then we turn to those who might be resistant and we begin with something like, “Now for others of you, you are hearing this and you are saying to yourself, “I don’t need this!” “This isn’t important or This is a waste of my time.” Then, we encourage and help with patience those who are faint and weak. “Take heart” we say. “In Jesus there is hope for you.” Then we admonish with patience those who are resisting. “Watch out,” we say. “Be careful” we warn.
Notice the Imaginary Audience in Your Head
In the first year of my first pastorate I was preaching angry. A dear woman, an older saint in the Lord, came to see me. She entreated me with love to consider the anger and the tone. “It took me thirty years to believe that Jesus loved me,” she said. “Pastor, I just can’t let you take that away from me.” I began to realize that I did not have her earnest heart and faithful life in mind when I was preaching. I spoke to her in a way that God wouldn’t. I was thinking only of those who were making trouble in our little church. She heard me addressing her as if she were them. God has provided the tone of the biblical text and the audience as a resource to help us align the audience in our heads with the actual audience in the text and among our listeners. He is faithful to provide grace upon grace!