EASTERN UNIVERSITY MISSIONS FORUM
BY NELSON OKANYA
October 24, 2012
I was born and raised in a Christian home in Kenya. My parents became serious about their faith right before I was born. My dad was Catholic before he met my mother who was Pentecostal but they decided before they had children to become Mennonite after being mentored by Mennonite missionaries from Eastern Mennonite Missions, the organization I now lead.
As a young man, my father had a reputation in the village and it was not a particularly good one. My grandmother birthed 14 children but because of the infant mortality in Africa at the time, only four children lived. My father was one of them. He was the second born son. My grandfather was a businessman. One day while on a business trip to neighboring Tanganyika (now Tanzania) he got sick and died. My father was in seventh grade. As a young boy in the village without a father, among other things, his prospects of an education essentially faded away and additionally, he resumed the responsibility of taking care of his mother and two younger siblings.
As I have listened to history, I realized that a narrative of abandonment, anger, and a need to prove himself shaped him. He also became the family protector. As a result he was known for starting fights and winning.
One night however, he had attended a village dance as was the custom of young people in those days and he got in an altercation with a bunch of guys who then surrounded him and one person swung a knife at him but missed him narrowly tearing off his shirt. When he realized what had happened, he left the dance and went straight home and went to bed. That night he had a dream that God had instructed him to read 1 Cor. 13, he got up and lit his paraffin lamb and read the passage but did not understand what he read. The next day he went to an elder at his church who helped him understand the passage and encouraged him to go to church and he never went back to the night dances again. He accepted a different narrative, a much better narrative. He was encountered by a power much stronger than any wounding force!
This morning, I would like to invite us to reflect briefly on this narrative by
Looking at three passages of scripture:
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he made purified citation for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:1-4).
“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18)
Over two thousand years ago, this Son walked the face of the earth in Palestine and began his ministry by proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
In East Africa I learnt that “repentance” meant feeling sorry for my sins and turning to Jesus for salvation. This is true and I did exactly that when a preacher at our secondary school awoke us to the fact that we were sinners and that the wages of sin is death. I realized that I was a lost sinner whose only hope was in Jesus Christ.
I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior and Lord. However, repentance as Jesus used it when he began his ministry also meant turning from ways of life and from prevailing narratives that form and shape people. For Jesus’ own people his call to repentance meant turning from the then prevailing narratives that were forming and shaping their identity as a people. Jesus called his people to turn back to YHWH their true God in whom they hope for freedom, justice and righteous came.
Instead of being shaped by the quietist narrative of the Qumran community, or the compromise of Herod Antipas, or the insurgent narrative of the zealots, or even the purity of the Pharisee Jesus presented a better and superior narrative, by saying, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus then went about living and demonstrating what the world would look like when God is in control. He healed the sick, incorporated the social outcasts like the woman with issue of blood, the Centurions’ Servant, the Syrophoenician woman etc and finally gave his life as a ransom (Mk. 10:45).
Similarly instead of being shaped by the prevailing narratives of rugged individualism, relativism, pluralism, subjective experiences, skepticism etc we ought to be shaped by the Jesus narrative, which I believe, is the hope of the world because God loves the world (John 3:16). In sum, in Jesus and through Jesus’ life and obedience, the kingdom of God has come and by faith in him we accept God’s plan for the redemption of the creation and as such we become the community of the redeemed charged with a mission to the entire creation.
The term “Kingdom of God,” is primarily found in the Gospels but the idea goes back to the Old Testament. It is a strange term to most of us living in the United States, since we do not use it in our everyday vocabulary. In the first century however, it carried with it a notion of the rule of God over God’s people.
God was known as Israel’s king. As king, God had planned to use Israel as an instrument of salvation for the whole world. Their mission was to lead other nations to the truth about God who had been revealed as liberator in the exodus by putting their total trust in God. Their trust in God was to serve as a witness and hence they were to be priests to the nations in hope that the nations would eventually put their trust in God as their king as well.
According to the Biblical narrative however, the people had their own idea and God’s plan was rejected. They asked for an earthly king to rule over them like other nations. Samuel sort of took this rejection personally but God said to Samuel in response to their request, “They have rejected me as their king” (1 Sam. 8:7-9). With that rejection also came the rejection of their call to be priests and a light to the nations (Isa. 42:6-7; 49:6).
Johanees Verkuyl in “Worldwide Perspectives” writes, “ Whenever Israel forgot that God chose her with a view to speaking to the other nations and turned away from them in introverted pride, prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah lashed at people’s ethnocentric pretension and charged them with subverting God’s actual intentions.”
When Jesus of Nazareth walked the face of this earth, his people faced many challenges perhaps not unlike ours. Missiologist David Bosch writes, “It was a time of sectarianism and fanaticism, of religious traffic between East and West, of merchants and soldiers carrying home new ideas, of experimenting with new faiths. Socio-politically the period was no less volatile. Palestine was under Roman occupation.” (p. 25).
David Bosch continues,
“As the political and social conditions of the people of the old covenant deteriorate, there increasingly develops the expectation that, one day, the Messiah will come to conquer the Gentile nations and restore Israel. This expectation is usually linked with fantastic ideas of world domination by Israel, to whom all the nations will be subject. It reaches its peak in the apocalyptic beliefs and attitudes of the Essene communities along the shores of the Dead Sea. The horizons of apocalyptic belief are cosmic: God will destroy the entire present world and usher in a new world according to a detailed and predetermined plan. The present world, with all its inhabitants, is radically evil. The faithful have to separate themselves from it, keep themselves pure as the holy remnant, and wait for God’s intervention.”
It was from such narratives that Jesus called them to repent. For in and through Jesus, God inaugurated a different story, a story of redemption, a story of self-denial and self-giving love. It is that story that forms and shapes the churches mission. In Jesus and now through Jesus’ disciples, God is bringing about his justice and mercy to the whole world. What Jesus was to his people, the church ought to be for the world after all Jesus said, “As the father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Will you go?