Archive for the ‘Mark’ Category


As a landscape can look quite different at different times of day or in different weather as the varying angles and hues of light on a terrain make different parts of that landscape stand out in sharp relief, so reading the Bible in a different cultural setting can highlight and bring out things you’d never seen before. I mentioned a few examples of this in an earlier post and here are a few more features of the Bible landscape that the preaching of Kenyan brothers has helped me see and appreciate in a new way.


It is sometimes said that African and Asian cultures are shame cultures (concerned about issues of public face and community rejection) whereas Western culture is a guilt culture (concerned about individual objective transgression of the law). Perhaps there is some truth in that but actually I think Western culture is a shame culture too just in a different way. Some things that would not be shameful in Kenya are shameful in the UK and vice versa. I’ll try to explore that more in another post. But what is certainly true is that when you are away from your home culture you notice the shame issue more.

When Ken Irungu was giving us an overview of 2 Timothy and preaching through the first chapter, one of the things that really struck me was how he brought out the theme of shame and being unashamed. In his time of trial Paul has been deserted (2 Tim. 4:16) and he calls Timothy ‘not to be ashamed of the gospel or of me his prisoner’ (1:8) but rather to be like Onesiphorus who was ‘not ashamed of my chains’ (1:16).

Challenging convention, being different, being outspoken can often be taken as shameful in a communal culture. To undergo arrest or punishment by the authorities, even when undeserved, will be seen as shameful. Even to suffer through illness, bereavement or some calamity can suggest that you under some sort of cloud of curse of misfortune. So for Paul to be suffering, and particularly suffering institutional persecution for the sake of his preaching, is a shameful thing and people will naturally respond by dissociating themselves and distancing themselves from him so as not to share the shame or pick the contagion. He will be rejected by the community, in itself a shameful thing, making him even more a figure of shame.

Being shown this theme has made the letter of 2 Timothy stand out in sharper relief for me. And I have also started to notice it all over the New Testament – the words ‘shame’ or ‘ashamed’ coming about 40 times. The death of Christ was a shameful thing (Heb. 12:2). The call of Jesus is to take up our cross (i.e. be willing to be shamed) and not be ashamed of me or my words else the Son of Man will be ashamed of him (Mk. 8:34-38). “Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (Heb. 13:13).

Elder brother

In African cultures the role of the firstborn is well understood. I remember being in a Bible study in the Gambia looking at Colossians 1:15 and the African brothers there had no problem understanding the significance of Jesus being the ‘firstborn’. They didn’t get distracted by the JW misunderstanding that this means that Jesus is a created being, they understood that just as the firstborn in a house is next to the father and has all the rights and authority and status of the father (particularly when the father is away), so Jesus is next to the Father and has delegated to him all the functions and power of the Father.

Then Stanley Wandeto was preaching on Luke 15 – the parable of the two sons – and he showed me something that I had never seen about the elder brother there. It’s a parable full of shocking (shameful) behaviour (e.g. the younger son asking for his inheritance, the old man running, the father begging his son) but the one I hadn’t seen was that the elder brother is shocking in that he doesn’t go looking for the younger son. Traditionally a responsibility of the firstborn is to look after his younger siblings, to keep watch over them, to care for them and keep them in line. When the younger son insults his father and goes off into a life of recklessness, it is the job of the firstborn (not the father) to run after his brother and plead with him to come back.

Now I think of it, I realise that this is the godly concern that many of my Kenyan friends and colleagues have within their own families, particularly those who are firstborns, to pursue and win back straying siblings.

This gives another level and depth to the characterisation of the elder brother in the parable. His hatred towards his younger brother does not start when he comes home and a party is thrown for him, it starts much earlier in his failure to search for him. The self-righteous Pharisees (who are the target of the parable) are at fault not only for their failure to welcome sinners but their failure to go out looking for sinners (cf. Jesus who welcomes and seeks the lost).

Dead dog

Before I came to Kenya I’m not sure I’d seen a dead dog before. Now I see one almost every time I go to the office, lying in the road. Africa is full of stray dogs. Mostly a yellow-brown colour, small to medium size, thin, feral, searching for scraps. They have a hard pathetic life and then they get hit by a truck or starve.

In most African cultures, for a person to be compared to a dog is an extremely insulting and shameful thing. For one thing the distinction between animals and humans is much sharper than in the West (where pets are part of the family and people get very upset over a gorilla being shot) and for another thing dogs are a particularly dirty and ignoble animal (in contrast to something more noble like a lion or a rhino).

So when Fidel Nyikuri preached Mark 7:27 to us and also reminded us of Mephibosheth in 2 Kings 9, it came home very powerfully what it means for us to be a dead dog – pathetic, despised, dirty, base, in the lowest place. And yet – the wonder of the gospel – we who are not entitled to anything are invited to eat at the king’s table and share the children’s bread (Mk. 8:1-9).

Water and milk

In parts of the world where water comes clean, clear, pure and cold straight from the tap and is basically never cut off, it is difficult to appreciate the preciousness of water. In parts of the world where milk is delivered to the door and is always there when you open the fridge, alongside three or four other beverages and fifteen food items, it is difficult to appreciate the importance of milk.

However in places where the climate is hot and dry and water is scarce, where it has to be searched for or brought up from the ground with effort, then there is much more impact when we read in Isaiah of drawing ‘water from the wells of salvation’ (Isa. 12:3), a ruler and renewal which is ‘like streams of water in the desert’ (Isa. 32:2; 35:6; 41:18; 43:20; 44:3), a shepherd God who leads his people ‘beside springs of water’ (Isa. 49:10). Similarly, in a community where milk (drawn by hand from your own animals) is a key part of the diet (in some pastoralist communities people survive purely on milk for days a time and even down-country in many villages the one animal you will own is a cow), then the land flowing with milk and honey is very meaningful picture.

Preaching from Isaiah 55 Gerald Mwangi helped us imagine working all morning on the farm, digging in the sun, drinking nothing, and then finishing your work in the early afternoon desperate for… water. Then to think of what we take from childhood onwards to make us strong, to give us energy, to build us up… milk.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.”

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Bernie muluuGuest post from our good friend Bernard Muluuta, pioneering some grassroots work encouraging faithful Bible teaching in Uganda:


Preaching is fundamental in the growth of the church and bears much fruit in the lives of Christians especially when done faithfully.

There are steps we go through when we get down to preaching or rather prepare to: we pray, study, pray some more, study more, write, pray and finally speak God’s Word to His people.

In our study and preparation, we are encouraged to handle the text right. “Context. Context. Context,” we are reminded, “is key” to understanding the big idea of the text. One other reason why we need to get our context right is because it affects how we apply the text to our hearers. A good understanding of the text and its context will greatly help us to apply the text to the people we are preaching to and show them why the text is relevant to them today and through that we hear God speak to us.

Spotting the context within a verse, chapter or book is good but it is also helpful to see it from the big picture perspective of the whole sweep of Scripture. All through the Bible we run into precedents – events that set patterns, they become a mould other events can fit into or are modelled on. (I don’t think I am the only one who runs into déjà vu moments in Scripture.)

We see patterns (set rolling by precedents) that are repeated in the Bible: the sacrificial system; prophets preaching God’s Word to a wayward people; God’s judgement against the people for their rebellion; the need for a king to lead God’s people; salvation for those who have faith in Jesus Christ.

The patterns have a lot to teach us about God, His character and plans, what He was teaching His people and how deviating from the pattern brought punishment against the people.

But it’s not just precedents and patterns we run into, we also find one-off phenomena – occurrences that happen only once and we are left with no other events to draw parallels to in an attempt to find a good explanation for the event. These are the exceptions.

moses-and-the-burning-bush-the-bible-27076046-400-300In the Old Testament we find events like Enoch walking with God and being taken away (Gen. 5.24), Moses and the Burning Bush (Ex. 3), Joshua and the messenger of the LORD (Josh 5.13), Gideon and the woollen fleece (Jdg 6.36-38). In the New Testament we find Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), Paul’s shadow and handkerchief healing the sick (Acts 19.11-12).

I point out this distinction because it is easy for us to mistake an exception for a precedent. In preaching some dwell on some of these exceptions and make so much of them more than the text itself intends.  This is reflected in the applications in the sermon as people are told they should walk with God that like Enoch they will be taken away (as mysteriously as he was). Or how like Moses they need a burning bush experience. In yesteryears I have heard (and unfortunately still hear) sermons where people are told that they like Paul should have the power to heal the sick with their shadows and handkerchiefs.

People experience frustration when they hear sermons that turn these exceptions into patterns that are supposed to be happening in their lives but never materialise. It has resulted in Christians who think their faith is weak simply because “these signs are not following them.” (Mk. 16.17-18) Others wonder what is wrong with them if they have not had a “face-to-face” chat with God like Moses did.

We need to be careful as preachers to study the Scriptures right and understand where events fit into God’s salvation story and revelation of Himself. Our understanding of their relevance then and God choosing to reveal Himself in a particular way will affect what we preach as well as how we apply the text to our hearers.

Let us not weigh down the church with expectations and challenges God did not intend for them or leave the church with the wrong impression of what God is communicating.

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prodigal god series

Just finished a series at church through some parables in Matthew:

  • Matt. 13:1-23 – The Prodigal Sower  (notes)
  • Matt. 18:23-35 – The Prodigal Banker  (notes)
  • Matt. 22:1-14 – The Prodigal King  (notes)
  • Matt. 25:1-12 – The Coming Bridegroom  (notes)

And while we’re sharing sermons – I’ve just been made aware that Munguishi Bible College has now put their Kiswahili audio sermon library online here – do check it out (currently just early Genesis and Luke 17 but growing fast).

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keller freedom

Tim Keller, in his great little book, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness (a sermon on 1 Cor. 3:21-4:7) describes the one who, through encountering the gospel, leaves behind the categories of low or high self-esteem and moves into a new territory.

This is off our maps. We are not used to someone who has incredible confidence volunteering the opinion that they are the worst of people. We are not used to someone who is totally honest and totally aware of all sorts of moral flaws – yet has incredible poise and confidence.

Are we talking about high self-esteem? No. So is it low self-esteem. Certainly not. It is not about self-esteem.

I see the same thing happening in Mark 7:24-30 as the Syrophoenician woman encounters Jesus.

You see she doesn’t have high self-esteem or low-self-esteem – she doesn’t think she’s wonderful – she comes as a beggar – but on the other hand she doesn’t think ‘Jesus won’t be interested in me I’ll just stay at home and go to hell.’ She comes as a beggar but she does come and she comes confidently, persistently, she won’t be put off. She’s a feisty woman. She doesn’t have high self-esteem or low-self-esteem and the secret is she just focusses on Jesus – the Bread – that is the secret – focus on Jesus the bread of life. He has come for you – in your spiritual hunger and helplessness and hopelessness and death he has come to be the bread of life for you to eat.

Full sermon.

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bonface munangaThe following is from current iServe apprentice Bonface Munanga. This article first appeared in the iServe Africa Newsletter in March this year. I read it and it blew me away. Absolutely brilliant stuff…


Growing up as a little boy in Sunday school there is a song my Sunday school teacher would lead us to sing, “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us, that we should be called the sons of God.” God’s love for mankind is one of the greatest mysteries that man can comprehend. Out of his glory and sovereignty he chooses to have a relationship with man, not out of need but deep and unfathomable love. He gives himself through his Son as the ultimate sacrifice for man to be reconciled back to Him. Through Jesus we have become sons and heirs, God indeed is our father.

A story is told by Mark the apostle of that darkest noon when love conquered death and light overshadowed darkness as writhing pain, anger and disappointment filled the air. I can imagine the headline on Golgotha Daily that afternoon, “Jesus the Nazarene Crucified”, it could have been breaking news that the whole of Jerusalem would have heard. It was total gloom and doom that fateful day. The disciples couldn’t stand it, Mary Magdalene and the other women were left in shock and despair as they watched their Lord being humiliated and led to die on the cross.

The Death of Jesus : Mark 15:33-38

At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. Then, at that time Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”

Some of the bystanders misunderstood and thought He was calling for the prophet Elijah. One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, holding it up to Him on a stick so he could drink. “Leave Him alone. Let’s see whether Elijah will come and take Him down!” he said.

Then Jesus uttered another loud cry and breathed His last. And the curtain in the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. When the Roman officer who stood facing Him saw how He had died, he ex-claimed, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”

Naturally speaking, death is the greatest human catastrophe, as a matter of fact it is a taboo in our African context to speak about it lest we annoy the spirits of death. But Jesus the Son of God, God himself, accepts to die for us and to become a sacrifice of sin that gives us salvation and eternal life. He comes to us in human flesh and blood. When he faces pain and death Jesus’ body is gripped by the power of death. God allows himself to step into time and save his creation, humbling himself to death. It is amazing that, he who had authority, power and magnificence, chose such a death. He became a curse in our place, as the bible records “Cursed is he who is hanged on a tree.”

Dead come Alive Cross

Golgotha means the place of skull. The son of God takes my curse and yours as he is crucified at the place of skull. What is the driving force again? Sheer love, a love that can not equal any other. The ultimate sacrifice, for a permanent transaction was being offered. For a moment, nothing could steal the show but death, death had the joy of having a grip on God. It seemed like our fate was sealed then. But wait a minute, not even death or any powers would hinder this.

The Resurrection – Jesus Is Risen! : Mark 16:1-6

The next evening, when the Sabbath ended, Mary Magdalene, Salome and Mary the mother of James went out and purchased burial spices to put on Jesus’ body. Very early on Sunday morning, just at sun-rise, they came to the tomb. On the way they were discussing who would roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. But when they arrived, they looked up and saw that the stone – a very large one – had already been rolled aside. So they entered the tomb, and there on the right sat a young man clothed in a white robe. The women were startled, but the angel said, “Do not be so surprised. You are looking for Jesus, the Nazarene, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He has been raised from the dead! Look, this is where they laid His body.

Glory to God for our savior and humble King has overcome death that we might have life and have it in abundance. The power to salvation lies in the knowledge that Jesus Christ the holy and only son of God is sacrificed at the cross where he dies before resurrecting on the third day. If resurrection never happened then there would be no salvation. This is life in itself, in that before we were dead in our sins, objects of destruction. God in his love and grace gives us a new lease of life. He extends his hand to us hoping that we will grab the opportunity not while it lasts but because it does last. This was the point where death lost its power over us. Death’s momentous joy could not hold anymore.

This is Easter, the ultimate sacrifice offered at the altar of sin, shame and condemnation, to reverse total curse and corruption. And not only to reverse but to change our destiny once and for all. Once we were not a people but now we have become the people of God. Behold the manner of love, selfless, ego free and having a fragrance of humility- that is our God, our Savior. He loved us to death. The ultimate sacrifice, then resurrection.

(If you’re interested in partnering with Bonface for his final two months of ministry contact the iServe office.)

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I really enjoyed looking at Mark’s Gospel with a group of pastors in Kisumu recently (Preaching from Mark handout).  I find myself getting more and more excited about the shortest Gospel. Such an exciting story. Such a carefully told story. Such a lot of Jesus. There were loads of things that struck me afresh reading it through again but I’ll just mention one:

The importance of the baptism

It comes earlier than in any of the other three Gospels. Just nine verses in, the first appearance of Jesus in Mark, the very first thing he does – going under the water. It’s a massive surprise. We’ve just been told to expect Jesus Christ the Son of God (Mark 1:1), the LORD God himself (cf. Mark 1:3; Isaiah 40:3; Mark 1:7) and here is a man from Nazareth being baptised – BAPTISED!?! – the dunking of repentance, for forgiveness of sins,  with confession of sins (Mark 1:4-5). What sin does he need to repent of, be forgiven of, confess?  And yet he wades into the muddy waters of the Jordan as a sinner. He is ‘numbered with the transgressors’ (Mark 15:28). His baptism is a graphic picture of the Cross – just as he drinks the Cup of God’s wrath instead of us so he plunges under the waters of death and judgment we deserve (Mark 10:38).

And then we get that wonderful glimpse of the Trinity: ‘the Spirit descending on him like a dove and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”’ (Mark 1:10-11). What an awesome glimpse of the heart of the universe – three persons united in love.  And when do we get this Spirit-Father-Son theophany? At the exact moment (“immediately”) when Jesus’ hair is wet and his face streaked with mud and his soaking shoulders covered in weed – then. It’s like the Father and the Spirit are turning up and saying, “This is what we’re all about. We are the Trinitarian God who is all about coming down, all about saving, all about being numbered with the transgressors, all about humbling to death on a Cross.”

So the whole of Mark’s Gospel, from verse 9 onwards, is about the Cross. Or to put it another way, the whole Gospel is about the baptism of Jesus; about the Beloved Son becoming what we are, suffering the death and judgment we deserve, that we might become what he is, beloved sons of the Father.

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“She has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly I say to you, whenever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:8-9)

Is that true? Is the story of the jar of perfume and the anointing of Jesus retold every time the gospel is preached? Of course not. What is Jesus talking about? Doesn’t he know that the gospel is simply, “Repent and believe”, “Jesus has died for your sins”, “Give your life to Christ”?

Mark 1:1 has been revolutionary for me recently.

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” 

Mark is not putting his book in a basket marked ‘The Gospels’ – most likely his was the first of the four.  He is using the word ‘gospel’ the same way Jesus used it and all the early Christians used it.  He is saying that his whole book is a proclamation of the gospel.  What does that tell us about the gospel?

  • The gospel is not a short formula – Mark is 11,304 words – an hour and a half to read out loud. There’s a lot to the gospel. While it is possible (thank God) for someone to be led to Christ in five minutes, maybe Mark should make us pause and think, when did we last take the time to sit with someone for an hour and a half to discuss the gospel?
  • The gospel is Jesus – As we keep on saying it’s all about Jesus. Just read Mark and you find Jesus mentioned in almost every verse.  The camera follows him everywhere.  He fills the screen.
  • The gospel is historical – Mark is telling us about stuff that is past –probably at least 30 years past even when he first wrote it.  It is not a testimony of transformation in Mark’s life. In fact most of the people in the story are not transformed.  The disciples are hardened, confused and Christ-denying to the end.  The last words are “trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). The good news, for Mark, is not our transformation now but what Jesus did then. 
  • The gospel is a story – That’s the thing I want to emphasise here. It’s a narrative. For Mark, the way you tell the gospel is “Jesus went here and he did this and then immediately he left and went over here and he said this and he did that and then…”  Often we rip a few verses out of Mark or Luke and treat it as a teaching floating around in the Bible somewhere.  It’s really worth sitting down sometime and reading a big chunk of one of the Gospels, or even the whole book (if you’re a fast reader you can get through Mark in 45 minutes) and it just comes alive as a story – characters, plot, action, dialogue – a gripping story, a constantly surprising story, the best story in the world.

It’s not only the four ‘Gospels’ that do this. Look at how the apostles preach the gospel in Acts. Again and again they tell the story of the signs, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:22-36; 3:13-26).

“As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ, Lord of all: you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.  And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree,but God raised him on the third day and caused him to appear,not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach…” (Acts 10:36-42)

Gerald Mwangi recently pointed me towards the Maasai Creed developed in the 1960s. Its great strength is the way it tells the story:

“God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes… God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies.”

We are often told that Africans love stories – that Kenyan congregations love to hear stories from the pulpit.  In fact I think it’s universal – all cultures love stories.  The question is what sort of stories do we love listening to?  What stories do we get excited about?  Is it the story of Jesus?  Is that the story being preached each Sunday? Is that the story capturing our minds and hearts and shaping our lives?

Let’s fulfil Mark 14:9. Let’s preach the party, the perfume, the passion, the shock and scandal and waste and worthiness… the story of Jesus.

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