Feasting on God’s Word in the Wilderness

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Have you ever needed to hear something over and over again for it to stick? Probably something a parent or your spouse reminded you of countless times before you realized it was, after all, the best thing for you? When my dad was a teenager, he was pretty rebellious, he told me. He didn’t rebel in a cultural way, but he lived with a rebellious attitude to God. However, my grandmother told him persistently, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” And while my dad always told me how he became a Christian hearing the gospel preached at church, I know that my grandmother’s persistent proclamation of Scripture made a difference in his life.

The season of Lent reminds us of our need for God’s Word to sustain us. We fast, emptying ourselves of things that distract us from God, and we are to fast from sin. But we are to feast on God’s Word. It ought to remind us that Jesus in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days, said in his resistance to temptation that his nourishment is in “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). Therefore, as we find ourselves in the wilderness, we must hold fast to the Scriptures to hear God’s voice and press on toward the rest that has been achieved for us already. Let’s take a look at the collect for this Third Sunday in Lent found in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer:

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Heavenly Father, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This collect is new in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer in that it has not appeared in any previous Anglican prayerbooks. The 2019 ACNA Prayer Book committee took a petition from the 1662 collect for the Third Sunday in Lent—“Look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants”—and added something even more ancient. The opening, in fact, comes from the first chapter of my favorite book, written by one of our Lenten companions for this series: The Confessions by St. Augustine.

Made for God

Augustine writes in his Confessions, “You made us for yourself,” but my favorite translation says instead, “You made us with yourself as our goal,” and because of that, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[1] When we do not have our hearts turned toward God, we live in contradiction to our created purpose, our affections are disordered, and we are restless.

Further in his Confessions, Augustine describes himself as “in love with loving,” and he cannot find satisfaction because the more broken his desires were, the more God’s love and goodness repulsed him. He shows that his desires are so disordered, and his pride is so destructive that what he most needs saving from… is himself.

In the traditional Prayer Book, on the third Sunday in Lent, we would pray for God’s protection from our enemies. However, the 2019 Prayer Book reminds us that the enemy can often be within when we resist God’s Word. Recognizing our stubborn resistance to God’s Word is crucial to the Anglican way and why Scripture is so fundamental to our worship and devotion.

Purified Affections

Augustine says it was his pride that caused him to reject the Christian faith when reading the Bible:

My swollen pride recoiled from its style, and my intelligence failed to penetrate to its inner meaning. Scripture is a reality that grows along with little children, but I disdained to be a little child and in my high and mighty arrogance regarded myself as grown up. (III.9, p. 57)[2]

But we see that, in the moment, he experienced God’s saving grace, and the moment the “light of certainty flooded my heart” was when he laid down his pride and read Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires” (Romans 13:13-14).

Jesus’s humility and the victory he won for us can “purify our disordered affections,” saving us from ourselves. Lent calls us to persevere and strive toward God through the power we receive in the Holy Spirit so that we may reach eternal rest. The key to that perseverance is hearing God’s voice and being attuned to Scripture so we can experience continual renewal toward the goal.

Harden Not Your Hearts

Going back to the origin of the Book of Common Prayer, we see this emphasis in the Daily Office on God’s Word for our perseverance. Thomas Cranmer placed Psalm 95 in the Morning Prayer service as the invitation to worship and hear God’s Word. In our tradition, it is called the Venite, Latin for “O Come,” the opening words of this psalm. Yes, this is a beautiful invitation to worship God and recognize him as the true King. But the psalm doesn’t end with the invitation—it contains a penitential conclusion, warning us not to harden our hearts against God’s Word:

Today, if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts *
as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness,
When your fathers tested me, *
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my works.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation and said, *
“It is a people that err in their hearts,
for they have not known my ways,”
Of whom I swore in my wrath *
that they should not enter into my rest.

In the American Prayer Book tradition dating back to 1789, the editors removed the warning in the Venite entirely and replaced it with the concluding verses of Psalm 96. Thankfully, in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer, the ACNA task force restored the full version from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, allowing for its abbreviation except during Lent.

This update in the 2019 BCP is faithful to the vision of the Anglican Reformers that the continual proclamation of Scripture is the “sure, steadfast, and everlasting instrument of salvation,” vital to our perseverance in Christ. The Book of Common Prayer is designed to form within us a holy desire to order our lives around Scripture and have that become the foundation for our faith and devotion.

Exhort One Another

And it’s true to the spirit of the Letter to the Hebrews, which calls back to Psalm 95 and the wilderness generation of Israel in chapters 3 and 4:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Hebrews 3:12-14 ESV)

Exhort and urge one another in our common sojourn to hold fast to Christ. Encourage one another to read God’s Word so our hearts may not harden. See how the author of Hebrews continues this line of argument in chapter 4, immediately following his call for us “to strive to enter that rest,” with a reminder of our need for God’s Word for renewal and repentance.

Sabbath Rest

The final verses of Hebrews 4 contain good news:

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:9-16)

Jesus experienced temptation like us, but he did not sin. Jesus resisted temptation in the wilderness by remaining faithful to God’s Word, and he has passed through to the heavens for us. We receive the assurance through his victory that our rest is secure. However, we must let the pure Word of God continually renew us as we persevere to the eternal rest we will share with him.

We begin the season of Lent encouraged not to focus so much on what we give up but on observing Lent with self-examination and repentance “by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” And because we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand, as the Venite calls us, we must know and recognize our Master’s voice. When God’s Word nourishes us, we can confidently hold fast to Christ even as he more securely has his hold on us.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared at Heaven in Ordinary.

Footnotes

[1] Augustine, Confessions, translated by Sarah Ruden. Modern Library, 2017.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, translated by Sr. Maria Boulding, O.S.B. Vintage, 1998.


Image: Christ in the Wilderness by Christ by Briton Rivière (1898).

Published on

March 7, 2024

Author

Craig Sanders

The Rev. Dr. Craig Sanders serves as a curate at Holy Cross Cathedral in Loganville, GA. He is in presbyter postulancy in the Diocese of the Rocky Mountains.

View more from Craig Sanders

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