This breakout presentation was delivered by Dr Craig Barnes (Presbyterian – Old Testament perspectives), Rev Kimberley van Driel (Lutheran – New Testament perspectives) and Fr Thomas Joseph White OP
Covenant is the bible’s favourite way to describe God, and God’s relationship to us and to all creation. It’s a relationship or covenant of trust, which points to the way in which we ought to live as a result.
In the Old Testament the relationship between God and God’s people is a relationship of grace, grounded in God’s mercy, God’s choice to love us. ‘It was not because you were more numerous that God chose you but because God loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors.’ In the covenant of Noah, God hung up the sacred weapon of a bow in the sky. God had chosen not to destroy all of humanity despite our wickedness.
For Abraham and Sarah, their covenant with God also came about solely because of grace. But the covenant comes with demands. Abraham has to trust God in return. So at 70 years of age he has to leave home and follow, not knowing where he is going and in return there will be a child. Over the next 25 years Abraham and Sarah had good times and bad times but no baby. We don’t have control over the covenant. Abraham and Sarah got so fed up of waiting that Sarah came up with the Hagar plan. Out of that comes Ishmael, who receives a covenant also. He is not part of God’s plan but God works it out, God accommodates, and promises to bless Ishmael as well. When at 100 years old, angels come along and say ‘now it’s time for the baby’ Abraham falls on his face laughing. When Abraham laughed God said, ‘is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?’ Even that which is most preposterous? That’s often the nature of God’s covenant. And God gets in on the laughter. When the baby is born God tells Abraham to call him Isaac, which means laughing.
There is also the Moses covenant, to pull people out of slavery. Now the demand is to live by a particular set of agreements, the Ten Commandments, which are ten signposts on the way to freedom, and show how to make our way to freedom. The people follow them in order to stay alive – it’s God’s promise to them. When they dance around the golden calf it’s an attempt to make life more predictable. Idols have no demands. God gets furious, says ‘step aside Moses. I’m going to annihilate those people and give you a new people’. But Moses argues with God, about whose people they are. Then at the end, God changes God’s mind, because Moses reminds God of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The covenant with David is based on David being a man after God’s own heart. God tells Jeremiah, I will put my law upon their hearts. So there is a shift here in the covenant, it is not about obeying the law but following one’s heart.
The implications for marriage and family life are the grace of a choice that binds us to each other, the demand that this completely changes life’s journey, but that God chooses to come with us in our hearts.
Kimberley Van Driel
Dr Barnes has evoked the sense of preposterous wonder, reflected in a series of Old Testament covenants. I’m going to look at how that preposterous wonder is poured out in Jesus, the incarnation, and how that incarnation fulfils those Old Testament hopes, divine wonder, and love for us. I want to argue simply that the incarnation allows us to know God, because it is by flesh that we are able to truly know and to love God. Think about how any of us know and love anyone. Can you imagine doing so without eyes, voice, body? God wants to be known by us in this way and that is why God becomes flesh.
Dr Barnes shared the story in Exodus 32 when Moses has led the people out of slavery into the wilderness, interceding for the people with God, reminding God of his promises. In the next chapter Moses has this moment of personal communion with God. Moses is pretty stressed out and as he is dialoguing with God he says ‘show me your glory. Let me see you.’ This is a very dangerous request. It is not good for humans to see God in God’s nature. It is too overwhelming. No one can see God and live. But God has made a covenant and God knows Moses needs a glimpse, needs that experience of God’s own personal presence. So what God does is to hide Moses in a crevice, cover him with a hand as God passes by, allowing Moses to glimpse God’s backside. But it’s enough for Moses, to sustain him for the leadership task. It discloses what this relationship with Moses looks like on a human level. It’s not about expectations. It’s about God’s presence in the here and now.
In Jesus God meets that longing expressed by Moses. In the first chapter of the gospel of John, we read that the word became flesh and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. Unlike the unmediated glory of God on Mount Sinai, the incarnation of God comes in a way we can handle, in a baby, in the face of a man who must live and suffer as we do. A God in baby shoes! Is there anything more appealing? This is a God in whom we can delight: Jesus, who lives and feels and suffers as we do, blesses our human flesh and our human ways of knowing. I believe that it is in this way that God fulfils the Old Testament covenant, drawing us into a relationship of love. Anyone who reaches out to Jesus experiences the glory of God. By becoming incarnate in the flesh God reveals that our embodied lives are very good. It’s my experience that we are inclined to believe that our spiritual life is happening somewhere else, out there, later, in our mind, but not in our embodied existence. In the incarnation God reveals that in the ways we care for our families is precisely the place where a spirituality can be lived out, in the concerted caring for one another, in the covenant, blessed in the flesh of Jesus.