Rookie preachers do a lot of standing in line. They stand in line to be listened to. They stand in line for credibility. They stand in line to be paid attention to at all outside of their local church context. There’s a lot of waiting for your name to be called. But the giants of preaching, the women and men many of us come to know because of their churches or preaching or books, those folks don’t stand in line.
Unless you’re Tim Keller.
I was a baby preacher at the time. I’d done more than a decade of ministry in local churches, but was new to the task of preaching each week, when I’d hopped on a plane and flew to Chicago for a conference. There were lots of notable “thought-leaders” on the conference program. Some I liked and knew. Others I did not care for. And still others, I would come to know of later. One of the presenters that week was Tim Keller. I knew him! At least, I knew his work.
As a rookie preacher I consumed hundreds of sermon podcasts, both looking for content and ideas and trying to discover my own unique voice. Keller’s preaching, because his context was largely secular and suspicious of Christianity, like mine, had beeped on my radar. His voice brought joy to the boredom I experienced as I strained on the elliptical machine twice a week at 24-Hour Fitness. Tim Keller’s sermons were my workout companions.
Keller’s voice is now gone. He died from pancreatic cancer on May 19, 2023. And though his voice is gone, it will always be with me. Dr. Tim Keller was a preacher’s preacher and every preacher is indebted to him. I confess, Tim Keller and I had foundationally different theological commitments. He was a Calvinist and it showed. I am not a Calvinist. Yet his preaching, both his winsome communication skills and the rigor he brought to his vocation shaped me deeply in my early years of preaching. In fact, I learned to stand in line from Tim Keller.
At that conference in Chicago, there was—as seems to be inevitable at conferences—a long line to check-in on the first morning. I expected that. What I didn’t expect is that exactly eight people in front of me stood a tall, bald man hunched over head inside a book. Even from behind him I knew: That’s Tim Keller.
In a world where pastors are increasingly known for their $1,000 sneakers, private jets, and mandates to be treated with special honor and privileges, one of the conference presenters, a man with multiple best-selling books, was standing in line to get his name-tag along with the rest of us. No VIP lounge. No green room. No “Dr. Keller will have a table to sign books.” He was just standing in line. A commoner.
I did not know Tim Keller. We never exchanged text messages or shared a meal, but I knew at that moment as I saw him standing in line that the man I’d heard on podcast was coherent to the man that actually was. He stood in line.
In all the sermons about the baptism of Jesus, one aspect is often glossed over. When John baptizes Jesus, John is baptizing a lot of people. After all, he wasn’t coined “John the Baptizer,” because he managed a shoe store. He baptized people, lots of them. And one day in Matthew 3, Jesus was one of the unwashed masses.
Just imagine. One after another. Men. Women. Teenagers. All being baptized by John and then, after a few, there’s Jesus. Suddenly, a booming voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my son.” But before that, our Messiah was just another average Joe standing in line.
When I see someone who doesn’t have to stand in line, nevertheless stand in line, I see someone who inhabits the spirit of Jesus. Or perhaps better said, has the Spirit of Jesus inhabiting them. Indeed, one metric of our Christlikeness, in fact, is our willingness to stand in line.
In my early years of preaching, as I listened to Keller’s preaching and read his books—particularly Counterfeit Gods—I found a pastor who took the arguments of others seriously and engaged them with both generosity and earnestness. When other Christian leaders tended to mock those who disagreed with them Keller listened and investigated. He was the kind of pastor who was taken seriously, both by those inside and outside the church, because he took them seriously. Skeptic’s questions, for Keller, were questions and not attacks. That’s why people who were and are suspicious and skeptical of Christianity lent him their ear. At the same time, there was a conviction of belief that never became exhausted or irritated. That’s what it takes to stand in long lines, perseverance, grace, and determination.
The American religious world lost a true pastor at the passing of Tim Keller, a man who was well-known, but shunned Christian celebrity culture. He extended his ministry beyond his local church without a Khardashian-esqe desire for the world to look at him, it seemed. He tried to tell, but never sell. His work was his work, his vocation, not an avenue for aggrandizement.
In death’s newness, there is always a danger of hagiography, of painting deceased women and men as more than they are or more than anyone could be. My sense is that if Tim Keller were here, he might be the first to warn us of that danger. Tim Keller was a man. Fragile and flawed like the rest of us. No more. No less. We should glory in Jesus and Jesus alone. And that is why, my friends, more of us would do well to stand in line.
Sean Palmer is the Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston, speaker and speaking coach, and author of several books including--Speaking by the Numbers: Ennegram Wisdom for Teachers, Pastors, and Communicators.