Liberating Prayer – a reflection for Passion Sunday 2020 (5th Sunday in Lent, 29th March)

Based on the Lectionary Gospel Reading: John 11:1-45

The death of Lazarus is one of the great stories of the bible. It touches on such great themes as the companionship of friends, the grief of a family, encountering death, resurrection and prayer. This reflection will look at prayer, and in particular – intercession.

In John’s gospel this story is the prelude to the first Palm Sunday. It really begins in John chapter 10 verse 39, and ends at chapter 12 verse 10. Jesus is staying at the place of his baptism (Bethany-over-the-Jordan; see John 1:28) when he gets news of the illness of Lazarus. It concludes with both Jesus and Lazarus threatened with death on the evening before he goes to the Temple in Jerusalem.

He stays too long in Bethany-over-the-Jordan for Martha. When Jesus approaches their village of Bethany (a different Bethany), Martha greets him as he finishes the long climb out the desert to the edge of the Mount of Olives. We can hear the pain and blame in her greeting: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Who could blame her? Martha and her sister Mary were distraught. Their brother was gone. An uncalled disaster had fallen on them. Their world had been changed beyond recognition and the one person who could have done something about it was absent.

Or putting it another way: God, I have prayed for the one I love and you haven’t done anything.

It’s so natural isn’t it? Your child is ill; you’re worried about a friend who lives abroad; you are frightened because an elderly relative is becoming more and more fragile and it is the most natural form of intercession: God, please do something!

Sometimes we leave out the ‘please’. It is so obvious that if we were in God’s place we would choose to heal, reconcile, change what we are not coping with. It was so obvious to Martha what Jesus should have done. But on that Sabbath day in Bethany-under-the Mount-of Olives, Jesus would not be told. He saw more in this than a simple case of healing – as he climbed out of the desert – he was preparing for a demonstration of God’s glory, which could mean anything. But what it would always be is an opening of the heart of God.

Martha interceded for her brother. All she wanted was for Jesus to turn round a deteriorating situation. For her intercession was telling God what she wanted and expecting results. Jesus was working for a different result.

It’s so natural isn’t it? I have done it and I know many other people who pray do it. We justly simply cry out to God: HELP! PLEASE! NOW! Intense, frantic intercession.

In this story Jesus attempts to re-shape Martha and Mary’s relationship with God. But that is not possible if they think they know best. They are trying to keep control of the situation. They try to alleviate the disturbance by keeping a grip on what’s happening and call on God as back-up. Jesus calls them to another way of intercession.

At no point was Jesus absent and in no sense was Jesus insensitive. It is Mary who draws this from him. She says the same as Martha but her tears speak louder. And Jesus cannot hold back his own grief. Martha seems to have wanted Jesus just to do what she wanted and then go on his way. Mary is different. She sees into the heart of the Lord and the day ends with Jesus in their home with Mary anointing the feet of Jesus as a final gift of human love.

So what might this story of Lazarus tells us about intercession? Perhaps it is this:

  • We come before God with others on our mind and heart.
  • We know that God recognises our feelings.
  • We try to resist the temptation to tell God what to do.
  • We seek the humility to submit to the possibilities that only God can offer.
  • We realise that we don’t have to say a lot – WE ARE NEVER ALONE.
God is love: and he, enfolding
all the world in one embrace,
with unfailing grasp is holding
every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow’s iron rod,
then they find the selfsame aching
deep within the heart of God.

by Timothy Rees (Singing the Faith 103)

John Rackley, March 2020