In yesterday’s post I began to describe my experience of Tim Keller’s preaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Today I’ll give a summary of the sermon I heard, along with some observations.
The sermon I heard on March 14, 2010 was called “An Everlasting Name.” It was based on Isaiah 56:1-8, a passage that includes these verses:
For thus says the LORD:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:4-5)
If you’d like to listen to this sermon, you can purchase it from the Redeemer Sermon Store. The sermon lasted 36 minutes, almost twice the length of the average Presbyterian sermon. Yet I found the minutes passing quickly because I was so engaged in Keller’s preaching.
The sermon had a traditional three-point structure. When we experience God’s salvation (Isa 56:1), we will have:
1. A new concern for justice.
2. A new community of equality before God.
3. A new name.
Each of these three points were based on exposition of the text of Isaiah 56. Though Keller did not go verse-by-verse through the passage, he discussed in detail the parts of the text that were applicable to his points. It was clear that he found these points in the text (exegesis) and not the other way around (eisegesis).
In his discussion of point 1 – a new concern for justice – Keller spent quite a long time explaining the biblical notions of justice, focusing on the meaning of two main Hebrew words for justice: mishpat and tzedeq. His explanation would have been understandable to educated lay people, but reflected a solid understanding of biblical scholarship. He quoted from the Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright, who claims that mishpat and tzedeq capture what we would call social justice.
Keller continually related the biblical text to current concerns and issues. In addition to speaking of social justice, under point 2 – a new community of equality before God – he spoke clearly about racism and its inconsistency with God’s intention for us. Under point 3 – a new name – he addressed that which gives us our meaning and significance. When we know the Lord, we derive our name, our identity, not primarily from our family or from our accomplishments, but from God.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Keller’s preaching style is almost professorial. He is a teacher who explains rather than entertains. In fact, I was surprised that this sermon included very few illustrations or stories, and almost no humor, other than a couple of ironic comments about two-thirds of the way into the sermon. This was, in fact, one of the least entertaining sermons I have heard in a while. (Photo: Times Square in New York City, only a few miles from where Tim Keller was preaching, yet a million miles away in terms of its values.)
But I am not criticizing Keller here. Not at all. I admire his commitment to focus on the text and its implications, without getting caught up in the culture of amusement. As I mentioned before, I was utterly engaged in this sermon, as were the others in the congregation, near as I could tell. Our attention was captured by the truthfulness and integrity of the presentation.
And also by its relevance to contemporary concerns. I would estimate that Keller spent at least a third of his thirty-six minutes, perhaps more, related Isaiah 56 to the issues of today: justice, equality, racism, reputation, family, meaning in life. This was not a teaching sermon that lived only in the biblical world. Rather, it built a bridge between that world and our own.
I was also impressed by the extent to which Keller addresses issues we’d associate with social justice. Christian faith, in his preaching, is not only or even primarily about me and my spiritual condition. Rather, it is a matter of living for justice in the world, and doing so in the context of a justice-seeking community.
Tim Keller swims against the tide of what many claim is essential for preaching today, especially preaching to the under-30 crowd. Many advisers insist that effective preaching must be multimedia, narrative-drenched, brief, and entertaining. Keller’s preaching uses no visuals and few stories. It is about twice as long as the average sermon in a mainline church, and would hardly be called entertaining. What Keller does with excellence is to unfold the meaning of the biblical text in an theologically-responsible way, connecting this meaning to the concerns and culture of the congregation. He does this in a way that helps people to engage with God in today’s world. And he does it without drawing undue attention to himself.
It’s clear that Keller has found a way to communicate with his audience, people, especially younger people, in New York City. Though I think his example is worthy of emulation, all preachers need to find the best way to communicate in their particular context. The forms and modes might differ in different places, but the fundamentals of Keller’s preaching are always worth imitating: wise engagement with the biblical text in its context that addresses the concerns of the congregation in its context. Keller helps us to understand God’s Word as it was spoken centuries ago so that we might understand and implement God’s Word for today.
In my next post in this series I’ll reflect a bit further on why I think Redeemer Presbyterian Church is thriving in a day when so many churches are failing.