In the season of Lent, the church deepens prayer, repentance, and other charity actions that recall Jesus’ struggle against sin and temptation in the wilderness for 40 days. The number 40 also recalls the 40 years of sojourning of the people of God in the wilderness after being delivered from the bondage of Egypt. Starting with Ash Wednesday, where the reality of mortality and sinfulness are represented by ashes marked on the forehead, in most Reformation churches, Lent finishes on the night before Easter Sunday, where death is overcome and this victory is celebrated by those who believe. The 16th-century liturgical reforms of Martin Luther impacted Lent directly in a bid to reject works of satisfaction associated with the sacrament of penance to absolution as God’s word of forgiveness. Lent was reoriented by shifting the focus from fasting, prayer, penance, and charity as works meriting favour from God to the accomplishments of Christ on Good Friday and Easter morning.
Bible passage: Hebrews 13:11-16
For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
That Jesus was that sacrifice offered for our salvation is a theme running in the Letter to the Hebrews. In this pericope, the letter makes typological comparisons between Old Testament worship practices and the death of Jesus as the new sin offering. This tent or camp in Hebrews 9:6-7, 12, and 13:13 recalls the time when the Israelites were in the wilderness living in temporary tents, where sacrifices for sin were disposed of outside the camp (see Lev. 4:12, 21; 16:27). In Leviticus 16:27, the animals used for sacrifice were to be taken and burned outside the camp: “The bull of the sin-offering and the goat of the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be taken outside the camp; their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be consumed in fire.” The phrase “outside the camp” in the Letter to the Hebrews points to the place of Jesus’ suffering and reproach as the place of crucifixion outside the city of Jerusalem. In relationship to the tabernacle worship, it refers to a defiled place. In is outside the camp that Miriam was banished when she was defiled (Num. 12:14). It was considered ritually unclean to go outside the camp, even for someone performing holy duties (Lev. 16:26). It was outside the camp that the guilty people were killed. It represents the most defiled of all places, yet it is also a place where cleansing occurs. It is a place where human beings are exposed to the worldliness of the world rather than secluded and protected from it.
Yet in Hebrews, it is outside the camp that Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice performs his act of saving and sanctifying God’s people – outside the holy place (Jerusalem). Jesus moves to the unclean to partake in their uncleanliness. Jesus’ death took place on the profane Roman (gentile) killing field, not within the holy grounds of tabernacle or temple.
The Letter to the Hebrews goes on to invite followers of Jesus to follow him outside the camp: “Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured” (13:13). The invitation to go outside the gate or the camp is an invitation to endure the disgrace, suffering, and, probably, death. It is an invitation to another destination, which is attained through the journey to the margins of society. In so doing, Hebrews invites its audience to journey outside the camp and join Jesus there. They move from their places of familiarity, comfort, and holiness to places of discomfort, workspaces and life stations of hostility, ethical challenges, and anywhere suffering is not uncommon.
This invitation challenges our usual Lenten orientation, which tends to be an inward focusing of religious rituals and routines, such as prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Hebrews invites us to outside spaces where transforming encounters can take place. We are invited to an outward journey. This outward movement during Lent is a process of “bearing the disgrace of Christ.” It echoes Moses’ choice of identifying with the oppressed people of God over the honour and treasures of Egypt (Heb. 11:24-26). This Lenten invitation to move out of the gate may involve the loss of honour, possessions, privileges, and status in order to be of service to the neighbour, hence the injunction “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:16).
The invitation of Hebrews 13:11-16 speaks to the WCC’s 11th Assembly theme: “Christ’s Love Moves the World to Reconciliation and Unity,” where Christ’s love causes a “movement.” According to the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ’s suffering and death on Good Friday, an embarrassing death outside the city, catalyzes a movement of love to those on the margins of the familiar and the comfortable. It is an invitation not only to migrate but also to be part of those who move out: that is, to be part of a movement of Love. In Hebrews 13:1-3, love is an exhortation for those who are brothers and sisters in Christ (v. 1). But this loving relationship has an outward impulse – it has outward thrust:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
Here there are categories of those who are outside the holy circle of the familiar, free, or well treated. Rather, love is to be directed to the “strangers,” “those who are in prison,” and “those who are being tortured.” The movement of love has its orientation toward these during this Lent.
Questions for further reflection
- In your context, what will be the most comfortable and familiar spaces and practices during Lent?
- What would movement from such spaces look like?
God who appeared to Abraham and Sarah, you are the God of our journey. Be with us on these 40 days of Lent. We accept your invitation to move away from our familiar territory to strange places where you will save and transform us. We accept your invitation to go for that strange sacrifice on Moriah; there show us your true sacrifice for us. Help us to sacrifice that which is so dear to us during this Lent. Show us Jesus in place of our sacrifices. During this Lent, let our journey be an outward movement to others; help us to journey especially with those who are suffering, rejected, and in chains. Move us from being self-consumed and self-seeking. Help us to join our saviour Jesus Christ outside the camp; there save and sanctify us. Amen.
Hymn: “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days”
Lord, who throughout these forty days
For us did fast and pray,
Teach us to overcome our sins,
And close by You to stay.
As You with Satan did contend
And did the vict’ry win,
O give us strength in You to fight,
In You to conquer sin.
As You did hunger and did thirst,
So teach us, gracious Lord,
To die to self, and only live
By Your most holy word.
And through these days of penitence,
And through Your Passion-tide,
For evermore, in life and death,
O Lord, with us abide.
Abide with us that, when this life
Of suffering is past,
An Easter of unending joy
We may attain at last!
Frances Hernaman (1873), Tune: St. Flavian
About the author
Rev. Dr Kenneth Mtata is the general secretary of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches and former executive study secretary for Lutheran Theology and Practice at the Lutheran World Federation. He did his PhD in New Testament studies at the University of KwaZulu Natal South Africa and at Humboldt University, Germany. He has had several publications in religion and development, hermeneutics and theology and public policy. He was ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe in 2002.