This week marked the home call of well-known church leader Tim Keller.
It was moving to hear some of his last words:
“To see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.”
For a man who spent so much of his ministry pointing people to Jesus these words were an example of the air that he breathed.
“It is all about Jesus,” was more than a slogan for Keller. Although he preached widely on both Old and New Testament books, Keller seems to have been drawn to the Gospels, as if by a magnet.
A Keller sermon was predictable in structure, and it would always get the hearer to Jesus, whatever the text on which the sermon was based. He joked that many in his congregation waited for the signals that he was about to turn their attention to Jesus.
I first encountered Keller in the late 1980s at a tiny conference organised by World Harvest at East London Tabernacle. I remember being stimulated by the freshness of his approach to preaching the gospel in such a way that Christians could be edified and non-Christians evangelised in the same service.
Over the years I have listened to hundreds of his sermons, read all his books and benefitted from hearing him at many conferences.
While I was preparing a MTh thesis on Preaching to the Heart of Modern Idolatry, I had a fruitful email exchange with him. He was undergoing treatment for an early cancer at the time but was more than generous to me in his replies.
Perhaps ‘generosity’ is one of the words that sum up Timothy Keller well.
He was generous in the way he was willing to learn from a variety of sources. His reading lists would range from Augustine to Jonathan Edwards to CS Lewis to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Everything Keller read seemed to be carefully processed and put to use in informing his preaching and church planting ministry.
I was interested to hear that when he was preparing to plant a church in Manhattan in the late 1980s, he turned to the sermons of Dr Martin Lloyd Jones and Dick Lucas to shape his own preaching to New Yorkers. His reasoning was that there was no US city like New York, so London was seen as the nearest comparison. He chose to study recordings of Lloyd Jones’s evening evangelistic sermons at Westminster Chapel and Dick Lucas’s Tuesday lunchtime services for upwards of 1,000 business people in the banking district of London.
Keller read the Bible carefully. He read the cultural moment with penetrating skill and he read the human heart with wisdom and sensitivity.
Keller’s original academic discipline was counselling and this is obvious when listening to him preach. A Keller sermon probes our hearts, articulates our questions, and without fail helps us to see how Jesus speaks to our hearts, answers our questions, and leads us to true joy and security.
Keller spoke about idols as the things we substitute for God and the things we build our security around other than God. What impressed me was that he did not make an idol out of being famous. Instead he allowed the limelight to shine a brighter light on Jesus.