Tag Archives: covenant

26 August – The Ten Commandments: Old Prescriptions in a Culture without purpose

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Pentecost 14

Deuteronomy 5:1-6
Psalm 19
Matthew 5:17-20

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

Confusing one’s own state of mind with the state of the world is one of the professional hazards of a certain sort of preacher. However, one is not alone today in asserting that, together with other Western cultures, we inhabit a world dedicated to a flight from truth. Some characteristic marks of cultures in decline are these: an ideology of relativism with regard to all claims for truth; inward self-protection from a questioning of the socially approved status quo; a secular religion which worships choice above everything; the cultivation of detachment from ultimate claims.

Why then bother with commandments from a world long gone?


Deuteronomy 5:6:  “Then God spoke all these words: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…..’


More than one hundred years ago, the British novelist and poet, Rudyard Kipling wrote these lines:

“Ship me somewhere east of Suez where the best is like the worst, where there ain’t no ten commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst”.

Kipling’s implication is that west of Suez, that is, in what we then called Christendom, there was no getting away from the Ten Commandments. Culturally, if not geographically, Australians, too, have been very much “west of Suez”. Then, if not now, nearly everyone throughout the Empire knew about the Ten Commandments, and a great many people could recite them by heart. They were included and explained in Church catechisms taught to children; they were read at the beginning of every communion service. And not only were they impressed on the ear, but also the eye as well. Many were the Churches in which the Ten Commandments looked everyone in the face as they sat in the pews. So it is that until about seventy years ago it was impossible for churchgoers to be ignorant of them, and even non-churchgoers who rejected Christian doctrine would largely not have dreamt of rejecting their moral claims, at least in theory if not always in practice.

Not so today. Even influential clerics pour scorn on them. Their purported irrelevance, and their virtual eclipse, is undoubtedly due to the increasing secularisation of our society, whereby everything to do with “religion” has been banished to the domain of a private experience. Another reason, perhaps more alive in intentional Christian circles, is the idea that “the law of Moses” has been superseded by “the law of Christ”. And there is truth in this claim. A well-known saying of Martin Luther that “each Christian must write one’s own ten commandments” has been understood to mean that Christians are free to substitute for those long received more or less what they like, whereas Luther actually meant that Christians are free to hear the commandments as gospel rather than cold, external law. In other words, Christians are free to obey the commandments rather than knowing themselves required to obey them.

It is indeed unfortunate that the Ten Commandments have come to be associated with the English word “law”, with its many meanings. If we use the word “law” in Christian language we should understand law as the Bible does, not as our judicial systems do. The word “law” has traditionally been the English word employed to translate the Hebrew word Torah, but Torah means the first five books of the Old Testament, not simply these ten commandments. The original meaning of “Torah” then is not so much “law” as it is “instruction”.  Torah really stands for the whole revelation of God – all that has made known the nature, character and purpose of God as the basis for what as a consequence we must be and do.

This is clear from the introduction to the Ten Commandments as we encounter them in this fifth chapter in the Book of Deuteronomy: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb….” (Chapter 5: 2). We then go on to hear how this covenant, although made with a significantly earlier generation of the Hebrews, is still being made effective “with us who are all of us here alive this day” (v.3). The substance of this covenantal promise is then given in the preface to the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt and of the House of Bondage” (v.6). It is to this covenantal reality that the law is then unfolded in the shape of the Ten Commandments.

Although not present in the Hebrew text, the consequential sense for all the ten that follow this introduction is an implied: ‘Therefore…’.  For this reason, on each occasion in the future that we make our way attempting to mine the import of these ten injunctions, we must as a reminder insert this crucial word therefore between the promise and the command. The point is that everything that can go wrong will go wrong when this introduction is passed over as if it has no interpretive force. To detach the commandments from their grounding in this event of deliverance, which is how they are inevitably heard today, is guaranteed to lead to a devastating misunderstanding.  They are then required to stand without any context in all their forbidding starkness.

Of course, it is only common sense to grasp that for the protection of common life any society must abide by a set of agreed rules. In this respect there is nothing novel about the latter half of the table of the commandments, which can be found in similar form in the law code of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, at least six centuries before Israel’s founding. But there they stand without this liberating introduction before us today. Everything, then, hinges on its force: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out ….”

The fact is that the commandments exist to make clear to the people of Israel exactly what is involved in the covenant, and to maintain that relationship of God with his people. Through the commandments, a practice is appointed for a way of life for Israel different from that of any other people on earth. In other words, Israel’s God does not intend to leave this people to follow its own devices, nor to work out its own destiny.

This foundation to the giving of “the Law” has not been readily understood by us, and it certainly wasn’t understood by the people of Israel. Time and again, we hear how they gave themselves to ever new and more grievous forms of slavery than that which they had left in Egypt, that living symbol of the despots by which people then, as now, are enslaved. The commandments, therefore, are ingredient in the promise of the Covenant for Israel, and in turn for us:  that the God, who calls a representative people into being, has left neither nations nor individuals in a state of bondage, or of hopeless moral confusion.

Indeed we can go further and embrace these commandments as our best protection against all the unjust commandments that might be foisted upon us by unscrupulous manipulators, by despotic governments, by insidious media pressure groups of all persuasions who seek to control the lives of others for their own purposes. On the strength of these commandments we can say “No” both to the unruly passions and desires that seek to tyrannise over us from within, and to all dictators who seek to tyrannise us from without.

If this understanding of the commandments is news to some people, then it must surely be “good news”. To say again: to wrench the Ten Commandments out of their context, leaving them standing only in their cold authoritarian isolation, is completely to miss the point. It means that they will inevitably become graceless, and therefore destructive, because they will lead either to pride or despair. And then, probably at the same time, they will serve as instruments of silent judgement over others.

The truth is this. At no time does God ever intend that law without grace be a means of salvation for people. This must be one of the hardest conclusions for serious and sensitive human beings to accept. We have so often been told, and thereby assumed, that by trying harder, by erecting more and more safeguards against the infringement of the law, there is still hope for us. But this is the ancient heresy of Pharisaism, though it is not at all peculiar to the Pharisees.

Pharisees are simply the representatives of all forms of religious and moral legalism. Not until it sinks in how extraordinarily good the Pharisees were – and they are usually made out to be unpleasant – will we appreciate the difference between the hopeless justification that they represent on the one hand, and, on the other, a hopeful justification for all.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).  How revolutionary is that judgement. “Exceed” here means not “more of the same”, but the need to run on quite different tracks. Only by such a fundamental diversion will the promise of the Sermon be realised: “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, I have come to fulfil them”. And what a fulfilment! For here is the old commandment made flesh. Here in dramatic concreteness is the law rightly lived, Here we find each commandment – inevitably in every generation either rejected or fired as a constrictive weapon – now beautifully and graciously embodied and lived.  Here is One whose being from beginning to end is marked by the law. Born under the law, he lived and taught under the law, and was crucified under the law ostensibly for the sake of obedience to the covenant between God and Israel. And it is by this perfect obedience that he shows the meaning of the fulfilment of the law, and therefore the meaning of life.  As the apostle Paul confirms: in Christ all the commandments of God are fulfilled as a resounding “Yes”.

As we approach each of these Ten Commandments in turn, it is in this graceful grounding that their meaning and fulfilment is to be found. To this end, we note how the Gospel of Matthew announces that Jesus teaches the Sermon on the Mount only to his disciples. Just as Yahweh of old calls his people out of the bondage of Egypt to the life of promise and destiny of which the commandments are sign, so the new “Israel” here is called on another mountain by a new Moses – called out of the bondage of the religious law to a life where the law becomes grace, active, fruitful, life giving.

But let us not overlook this. The sermon is uttered in the presence of the crowd. The point of this scenario is to make clear that literally any apparent outsider is free at any time to become a disciple. This should not be a surprise. Even before Moses and this covenantal pledge introducing the commandments, Abraham was promised a similar outcome: that through his obedience “all the nations of the earth will bless themselves”. The point is that the covenants, old and new, with their accompanying commandments, are for the sake of a world blessed. God and the world, here as everywhere, always belong together.

May it be so for our day too. Embraced by this promise, we will then find ourselves properly prepared to embark on this tenfold journey of freedom to a promised land.

18 March – Forgiveness as good as innocence

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Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51
John 12:20-33

…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

This is surely a prophecy most beautiful. It is perhaps surprising, then, given how moving Jeremiah’s account of the new covenant is, that the New Testament makes little use of Jeremiah’s saying. There is a reference to a new covenant in some of the sayings of Jesus around the last supper but this would make perfect sense if Jeremiah had never spoken of a new covenant. And the whole passage we have heard from Jeremiah today is quoted in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, but there it is used for the letter’s own particular polemical purposes.

This is not to say Jeremiah’s prophecy is not known, or is largely forgotten by the New Testament, but to say that it is not necessary for the New Testament. Rather, the New Testament’s understanding of what happens with Jesus as much interprets Jeremiah, as Jeremiah might help to interpret Jesus. Put differently, Christians don’t get to God on the basis of the promise in Jeremiah alone; we have to read Jeremiah here through the cross.

Jeremiah promises a new covenant ‘unlike’ the first. The ‘unlikeness’ is that the first covenant was broken but this one will not be. The sign of the unbreakability of the new covenant is that the law will be written within the being of the covenant people: ‘I will write it on their hearts’. Alongside this we hear, ‘no longer shall they say to each other, “Know the Lord,”’ for all shall already know the Lord, because God will have forgiven ‘their iniquity, and [will] remember their sin no more.’

Jeremiah piles up a new covenant, an interior covenant, a heart covenant, a new kind of knowledge of God, and binds this up with forgiveness of sin. If we are to comprehend this, and find ourselves comprehended by it, then each element must carry its full weight: new, interior, heart, knowledge, forgiveness of sin.

We could tease out each of these elements one at a time, but instead we’ll come at Jeremiah’s new covenant from the angle of its unbreakability. How can the covenant be unbreakable when there is nothing new about the human covenant partners themselves?

The unbreakability is not in that the covenant is made of very tough stuff – a diamond standard covenant. The covenant cannot be broken because it is made of brokenness, of what is already broken. Jeremiah’s prophecy is not a utopic vision. It is spoken into the devastating fall of Jerusalem, interpreted as the cost of breaking the covenant with God. ‘I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more’ is the basis of the heart-covenant God promises. These are broken hearts, restored. And so the knowledge of God promised here is not immediate, direct-line awareness of God without reference to world or history. This intimate knowledge comes through the agony of the broken covenant. The heart which knows God in this way knows forgiveness, knows itself as a heart which has been torn apart but is now restored. Jeremiah does not speak a word of comfort to hurting people; he proclaims forgiveness to sinners.

The unbreakable covenant is unbreakable because it is made of such brokenness. This is the interiority of the new covenant; this is how the new covenant gets inside of us.

It is here the cross becomes important because, if nothing else, it stands for the harsh realities of human being. But this harsh reality is not the physical suffering of crucifixion. It is, rather, precisely the kind of covenant-breaking against which Jeremiah and the other prophets preached. The resurrection of Jesus presents to us that Jesus was the embodiment of the covenant, the presence of God actively reigning in a human life. The resurrection opens our eyes to the fact that the cross was sheer catastrophe: the rejection of the covenant embodied in Jesus. The fall of Jerusalem and the cross of Jesus are the same kind of thing: signs of the broken covenant.

In what way is the new covenant ‘in Jesus’ blood’ made from brokenness? Here the liturgy helps, and the breaking of bread and blessing of a cup in particular. In the distribution of the elements of bread and wine, we hear that they are the body and the blood of Christ broken and poured out ‘for you’ in a new covenant. In its own way, this is quite right. But it doesn’t mean that the body and the blood are a kind of ‘price’ God pays for us to be reconciled: ‘God did this for you’. If this were what it meant then we would be right to object to the cross and the body-and-blood language, although not for the reason many do.

We typically object to the notion that God might have killed someone on our behalf – particularly God’s own ‘Son’, and then to the ‘icky-ness’ of the implied cannibalism. But these are secondary distractions which arise from a more fundamental misunderstanding, which is to imagine that what happens between us and God is in fact external to us, a transaction between God and we’re-not-sure-who that doesn’t quite involve us even though we are the beneficiaries. This is the problem with the ‘for you’ language: it suggests that we are beneficiaries of a third-party exchange.

But if Jeremiah is right – if God does go to the heart of the matter in dealing with us – then the body and blood of Jesus are broken ‘for’ us only if they are also broken by us. Here is the ‘interiority’ of the new covenant. Our failure in our relationship with God – the cross, of which the bread and the wine is the sign – is the stuff out of which God builds a new relationship, a new “Body of Christ”. The new covenant is made of the broken shards of the old covenant.

This can be so only because this is the kind of God we are dealing with here. God is most God when creating something out of nothing. The nothing in Jeremiah’s preaching is the broken people of Judah. The nothing in the resurrection is the broken body of Jesus. The something created is the new covenant, the Body of Christ made again from the broken body of Christ.

To receive bread and wine at the Lord’s Table is to participate in an act of forgiveness. It is to be forgiven for what the bread and the wine represent – rejection of the law of love and the freedom of God.

Two thousand years later, of course, it is not possible for us to be personally accountable for the crucifixion of Jesus. But the demands of the law of love remain and we cannot be confident that we have lived, loved, given ‘enough’. (Even this way of putting the problem creates the problem again – as if there could be ‘enough’ love). And the terrifying freedom of God continues to rampage, asking more than we want to give, seemingly even breaking God’s own commandments.

The bread and the cup are all bodies broken by anger or neglect, all denied requests for love, all refusals of mercy. The bread and the cup are all fallings-short of the law of love.

But the bread and the cup are also employed in this space as the sign of God’s freedom to forgive – that most fundamental violation of demands of justice and the point at which love breaks free of law and is just love: God inside us, we inside God.

This prophecy most beautiful of Jeremiah is no sentimental longing to be over it all. It knows that we are caught up in ‘it all’ – as much perpetrators as victims. This being the case, it declares that forgiveness is as good as innocence and it invites us, then, to be forgiven, and to forgive.

This is the new covenant Jesus brings.

4 March – As good as it gets

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Lent 3

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
John 2:13-22

Last week I spoke about How not to Fall on Your Face before God or, at least, how to minimise the pain of the gift of being in the presence of God.

A first falling on your face before God is unavoidable. This is the form of meeting with God and knowing that it is God we meet. Such a falling marks the gift of God – that God wills to meet us with grace and blessing.

But, in the stories of Abraham and Peter, we saw a second kind of falling before God which marked not God’s gift but human presumption. Given that falling on your face is a painful experience – even when in holy awe – the best way not to fall on your face in this second way is not to get up again after the first fall.

Yet it remains the case that we do get up again. And again. And again, even if each time it – and the subsequent fall – is in quite different ways.

Our readings today relate to two of the gifts of God – the gift of the law and the gift of the Temple – two occasions for an appropriate falling before God. These are marks of God’s covenant with Israel, pointers to God’s presence to Israel, and to how Israel is to be present to God. Each is, unequivocally, a blessing, conveying the Who and the How and the Where of God’s relationship with Israel. The life of the people of God is filled with such markers – commandments and ethics, temples and liturgies, creeds and confessions.

But, having been bowled over by the gift of God, the people of God then climb to their feet. This is what we do. Commandments become separated from the one who commands them. (We might think of all those lists of the Commandments in churches which omit the crucial opening lines telling who it is who gives the commandments, and what he has done). And the life of a Temple becomes separated from the One to be met within it; we don’t need gospel readings to tell us that this happens. This is the cause of the wrong kind of falling on our face: separating the gift from the giver.

There is nothing wrong with Temples and creeds and liturgies and codes of conduct. In fact, all human existence is filled with them in one form or another, so it ought to be no surprise that God uses such things to deal with us, or provides them that we might deal with God. In fact we are right to be suspicious of talk about God which denies that God uses – even needs – words and community and buildings in this way.

This is to say that the Temple and the Commandments matter more than we are likely to imagine, for they are sacramental. Sacraments are things which look like one thing but are in fact something else. What is important in this is that the ‘something else’ is not inherent in the sacrament; it comes from God. God gives the sacrament and it only ‘works’ when it remains God’s. God uses the mundane – a bath for baptism, a meal for thanksgiving, a temple, an ethical code – to get to us, and that we might get to God.

The basis for our saying this is in what Jesus throws to us religious in the Temple story this morning: ‘Tear down this temple, and I will build it up again in three days’. Christians, of course, know what this means because the text tells us: Jesus casts himself as the temple, and there’s a hint here at his coming passion and resurrection.

But this is not enough. There is more here than the shift of the presence of God from the stones of the temple to the flesh of Jesus. ‘Tear this temple down, and I will build it up again’. The temple to be built up is the same temple which was torn down. The Jesus who is resurrected is the Jesus who is crucified, who stands before the temple authorities and the freshly minted disciples in all his ordinariness. This is tantamount to saying, ‘This is what the rebuilt temple will look like: it doesn’t get any better than this’.

And that is why Jesus is crucified: because we want it to be better than this. ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’, comes the challenge to Jesus after he has taken the whip to the temple marketplace, and he responds, ‘Tear it down and I’ll build it up’. But the sign is not the dazzling miracle of a resurrection – a neat enough trick in itself.  The sign is that the risen one is the very one who stands before them in the Temple courtyard. Knock me down, and I will get up again. God looks like this ordinary Jesus. Or like a Temple. Or like Commandments on stone tablets.

The extraordinary character of the work of God in Jesus is in the ordinariness of Jesus: this body, this flesh, this hungry stomach, these dirty feet, this bloody nakedness on a cross. All these things God can make a temple. To declare as we do at Christmas, that the Word became flesh, is not to say merely that it became meat. This flesh was not only body and blood but was all that become body and blood, and all that body and blood become. The Word became all that we need in order to be ourselves, and all that we create.

I am, Jesus says, what the Temple and the Commandments and the prayers and the sacrifices and the festivals – or even you – can be when God is active in them, and in you.

To fall on our face for the wrong reason is to have separated the gift from the giver, and usually precisely because we think that this is required for God’s own sake. Think again of Abraham’s derisive laughter and Peter’s rebuke of Jesus, and their proposals of how God might do things better. And so in the end a crucifixion seems necessary for God’s own sake, for here we assert that Jesus could not possibly be the sanctuary of God.

The gospel, however, is that God will not be separated from the gift, and comes and comes and comes again to reclaim our flesh as his own. This is the resurrection of Jesus. Here God declares not only who Jesus was, but that how Jesus – his ordinariness – is part of his identity as the divine Son. In this sense, the resurrection must be of a recognisable ‘body’ with a history, and not merely a ghostly apparition.

Having reclaimed the gift of fleshliness as his own, God then gives the gift again. And this is our resurrection. We are raised into the ordinariness of our lives: our work, our relationships, our temples and codes. These are the places where God will meet us because they are where we are.

You have torn it down, God says, but I will raise it up again and give it back to you. And then you will know me, and be amazed.

25 February – How not to fall on your face

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Lent 2

Genesis 17:1-10, 15-19
Psalm 22
Mark 8:27-38

Conventional wisdom has it that falling on your face is, generally, not a good idea.

And yet in our story this morning, in which God repeats the covenant promise to Abraham, the patriarch falls on his face twice – once for better, once for worse.

For the better, Abraham’s first fall is in holy awe. God declares ‘I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous’. This is, for Abraham, a very good thing. Falling on his face is an appropriate response to the presence of one whose intention is sheer, overwhelming gift.

But then, for the worse, Abraham falls on his face with laughter at the suggestion that he and Sarah would now share a child. This is not happy laughter but derisive, and Sarah later laughs in the same way (Genesis 18.12ff). ‘Come on God, let’s not be silly’, and he takes God aside to show him Ishmael: ‘The son I already have can be your means.’ And God says, No. So much for at least one human reception of divine gift.

Yet, when we swing across to the gospel we see the same dynamic. In response to the question about the identity of Jesus, Peter apparently answers perfectly: You are the Christ. In Matthew’s more expansive account Jesus congratulates Peter for recognising who Jesus is. We are here at the midpoint climax of Mark’s gospel: Jesus accepts the title ‘Christ’, and the very next episode is the Transfiguration of Jesus: This is my Son; here is the sheer gift of the God. Peter’s declaration is a falling down moment of holy awe, even if he remains upright.

But then comes the derision. Jesus tells of his coming rejection and suffering at the hands of the people and Peter takes him aside and begins to rebuke him – another falling down in mocking laughter. And Jesus says, No.

If, on account of their significance in the biblical stories, we were to take Abraham and Peter as types – as models or patterns – of how the holy people receive the holy God – then there is something about us which both enables us to recognise God, and causes us not to.

What are we to do with this? I’ve titled this sermon, How not to fall on your face, to which we now come: the ‘application’ of what we’ve seen in the readings today.

It hurts just as much whether you fall on your face with holy awe or with derisive dismissal of God’s proposals. But there is a difference between the pain of these two falls: one is God’s gift and the other is God’s curse.

The gift is the shock which wakes us up in the way that only a fall can. And we need to be woken up, sleepwalkers through life that we are.

The curse is God’s response to our presumption to speak too quickly. Having just woken and opened our eyes, we imagine they are already adjusted to the light. No longer asleep but blinded, we find God to be a stumbling block and we hit the ground again, now unnecessarily.

Falling on your face for the better is an entirely appropriate response to a God whose approach fills and illuminates and completes far beyond your wildest dreams.

The way to avoid falling on your face for the worse is simply not to get up after the first fall. Presumably Abraham recovered from his initial shock and climbed to his feet before he hit the ground the second time. For Peter, the difference between a fall for the better and one for the worse is the difference between answering a question Jesus had asked him and presuming to answer a question Jesus had not asked.

Christian discipleship is about not getting up after falling on your face that first time. This is what it means to take up a cross and follow Jesus.

This is all metaphorical, of course. I’m not talking about ‘giving up’ or refusing ‘to get back on that horse,’ or staying on the ground as a doormat for others or even for God. It is important to counter such defeatist mindsets when we meet them but we are far beyond the power of positive thinking here.

Carrying our cross, or falling on our face for the better, is a matter of adopting an appropriate posture before a God who draws the world as it is into the world which is promised by such crazy means as a Geriatric Conception (let alone a virginal one) and a crucified Christ. For these are the same thing: God pressing through what we believe him to be, to become the God he wills yet to be.

To take up a cross and to follow Jesus is to look up from the ground and to blink into the light at the sight of an impossible child in an impossible place – Jesus on the cross. It is to let the light which that sight is slowly to wash out the shadows, slowly to come into focus. It is to see that the last thing God should do is the only thing God does.

To take up our cross and follow, or to remain prostrate in holy awe, is to live in thanksgiving, that even the unholiness of the holy people of God is no barrier to the overwhelming gift of God.

According to your preference, then: Take up Your Cross and, or just Fall on Your Face, and watch as God calls into existence things as yet unimagined and raises the dead – even us.

18 February – Living with a forgetful God

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Lent 1

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25
Mark 1:9-15

Noah-and-the-ark is perhaps the best known of all Bible stories, not least because it involves animals, and animals make great toys, and so nearly every kid gets to play Noah-and-the-ark at some stage or other. But what we all know about the story is typically the form and not the substance. The form of the story is Noah and the animals and the rainbow. The substance is, How to keep God under control or, perhaps better, Living with a forgetful God.

Of course, notions of keeping God under control, or God’s forgetting of his promises, are impious. But, as it happens, that such thoughts are necessary comes from God himself. We know well enough the flow of the Noah story. There is sinfulness across the face of the earth, except for Noah and his family; God resolves to wash away all humankind but them; the flood comes and goes; God resolves not to do this again and gives the rainbow as a sign of this resolution. It is the rainbow stage of the story which matters for God-control purposes.

As a sign, the rainbow is not a mere sign, in that it could have been something else. A rainbow bends in the way an archer’s bow bends; more than a sign, it is a symbol, in that it resembles and so reminds of an archer’s bow. The rainbow signs that God has laid down his weapon and will not attack again: “I have put my bow in the sky.”

But notice to whom the sign-symbol is given. Specifically, it is not given to us that we be reminded; it is given to God, in order that God not forget the promise, Never Again. The rainbow declares that the people stand only when God remembers the covenant; only God can control God. The point at which heaven and earth meet is marked with something of such scale that God cannot miss it, and in such a way that we know God cannot miss it.

This pre-historical story with its ancient mythological symbolism seems a long way from the much less mythical gospel narratives of the ministry of Jesus. Yet it is not so far as we might first think. For Jesus is himself the point at which heaven and earth meet; Jesus is himself the New Testament’s rainbow.

But at the same time Jesus’ ministry culminates in the cross, a crisis of divine forgetfulness: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, forgotten me? (Mark 15.34). It is all the more poignant that Jesus should cry out so with the baptismal declaration still ringing in his ears: You are my Son, the Beloved. The cry from the cross is precisely a challenge to God that a covenant has been forgotten, despite the faithfulness of Jesus. Such a death for Jesus ought to be impossible, for how can God forget the Beloved? Yet the chaotic flood of human politics, religion and morality washes him away. This was not “the plan” as if it were supposed to happen; nothing is supposed to happen except that God remembers.

Has God forgotten, forsaken here? Yes, and No, as it always is between us and God. Yes, for what else could the cross be but God turning away? No, for what else is a resurrection but God remembering a beloved? The cross and the resurrection, the forgetting and the remembering, have to be held together in this way.

But it is a tight tangle of thought threads here, almost nonsensical. The language of forgetfulness and remembering makes no sense if we begin with the conviction that God knows everything and so cannot forget. But the Scriptures reduce neither God nor us to such simple notions. Simple ideas cannot reflect the experience of what passes between God and the world, between life and death, between remembrance and forgetfulness. These are never poles between which applies a strict logic; God-and-the-world requires its own way of thinking, part of which is a tangle of remembering-and-forgetting.

Jesus is baptised into our world, into the realm in which it is imagined – and so experienced – that God has forgotten. And so his being in the world is, specifically, as one of being forgotten and being remembered by God. The very baptism of Jesus at the outset of his ministry involves the recognition of Jesus by God – the re-cognition, the re-thinking, re-calling of him: You are my Son, the Beloved. God re‑cognises, remembers, Jesus as the Beloved, and this is the basis of Jesus’ own life and joy: the joy of finding himself thought again by God.

And us? God recognises us as beloved in another sign, given for divine and human remembrance. The sacrament of broken bread and blest cup is a drama of remembered forgottenness: a broken body, healed.

Do this for the remembrance of me.

The remembrance here is no mere “thinking about old stuff”; it is a more potently a making real and present here and now what Jesus is. What is Jesus? The forgotten, forsaken world, remembered. And, when remembered, healed, because healing is what happens when God remembers.

The rainbow is an enormous sign at the point where heaven and earth meet. God cannot not but see it and be reminded of how he has promised the two shall be related.

The enormity of the sign which is Jesus himself is not spatial but relational: My Son, the Beloved. This God cannot forget, and it is God’s remembrance of Jesus which is the sign given to us. We break bread and bless a cup, we eat and drink, that God’s remembering of the forsaken Jesus might again be among us, that we-in-him might know the joy of being remembered.