A Meditation for the Fifth Sunday of Lent 2020

A key priority for us as Christians in the present crisis is praying for others. In the Gospel for today, in chapter eleven of John’s gospel, we realise that we have much to learn from her intense struggle with the prayer of intercession. We discover that Martha invites us to take a completely fresh look at this type of prayer and have the courage to face head-on questions which we often suppress. What exactly are we doing when we pray for others? What should be our proper expectations? What should we feel when our prayers seem to go unanswered? How, in fact, should we approach intercessory prayer at all?

The chapter begins with Martha sending an urgent request to Jesus: ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ This is pregnant with the hope that Jesus will leave whatever he is doing, and come and heal Martha’s brother immediately. Martha is focusing on the presenting problem; she sees only illness, a brother who is sick. She acknowledges Jesus to be ‘Lord’, but seems closed in her thinking about what might happen. She expects, demands a miracle of healing.

Martha experiences hurt and confusion when things do not turn out as imagined. She faces an agonising wait as Jesus deliberately delays his coming to Bethany.  Julian of Norwich writes: ‘But sometimes it comes to our mind that we have prayed a long time, and still it seems to us that we do not have what we asked for. But we should not be too depressed on this account, for I am sure, according to our Lord’s meaning, that either we are waiting for a better occasion, or more grace, or a better gift’1 Indeed, Jesus is  actually motivated by love, and has a better gift in store: ‘Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was’ (Jn.11.5,6). However, from Martha’s standpoint, Jesus is being callous or inefficient, and she cannot understand why Jesus does not rush to her aid. Lazarus dies, and is laid in the tomb, but Martha sends no further requests to Jesus. For her, it has been a total failure, disaster, the end.

What are we doing when we intercede for others? Are we persuading God to act in a manner that he has thus far overlooked? Are we advising the Almighty what to do? Are we informing him of a situation he has not noticed? Martha’s experience reveals four crucial truths about intercession, and opens our eyes to new possibilities.

Intercession is opening ourselves to Glory

Jesus is very emphatic in his response to Martha’s prayer: ‘This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it’ (Jn.11.4). Again, outside Lazarus’ tomb Jesus says to Martha: ‘Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?’ What is ‘glory’ in John’s perspective? It is the visible radiance of the divine presence – a sign that God is powerfully at work. John introduces this key theme in his words: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father’ (Jn.1.14). How is this glory to be revealed? God’s glory is manifested through ‘signs’ like the transformation that took place at Cana (Jn.2.11). But it is supremely and paradoxically to be revealed on the Cross. While other parts of the New Testament suggest that Jesus first suffers and then receives glory in the resurrection/ascension (Lk.24.26; Heb.2.9), John alone sees the crucifixion of Christ as the greatest moment of glorification. In the Fourth gospel, Christ can say of his passion: ‘The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified’ (Jn.12.23; see also 7.39; 13.31; 17.1-5). Jesus approaches his death not as a disaster to be endured, but as a glory to be embraced, for the Cross is the moment of salvation. From the cross flows forgiveness and hope – it is the greatest hour of God’s revelation, the laying bare of his presence.

Martha is invited to pray, not for Lazarus’ healing but for the revelation of the glory of God. Do we, like her, have in fact too low an expectation of intercession, asking for restoration of a deteriorating situation, when we could be asking for the revelation of the glory of God? Martha asked for Lazarus’ healing from illness. She receives the astounding vision of Christ as the vanquisher of death, as Lazarus rises from the tomb. Moreover, she receives the salvation of the world for, in John’s view, Lazarus’ rising precipitates and leads directly to the crucifixion. As a result of his rising, the Jews take counsel how to put Jesus to death (Jn.11.45-53; see also 12.9-11).

Martha has to let go of her small and narrow expectations, and allow Christ to surprise her with the revelation of his glory, which is beyond her wildest imagination! As the Letter to the Ephesians puts it: ‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen’ (Eph.3.20,21). Like Martha, we need to learn to give up any tiny-mindedness when it comes to intercession. We need to be open to the glory of Christ however and whenever it is to be revealed, most likely in the places and people we would least expect to find it!

Intercession leads us to new levels of faith

When Martha meets Jesus, she greets him with complaint: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ She gets out of her system the negative feelings of disappointment and rage that had been brewing up during her long four-day wait for Christ.   Nevertheless, she retains some confidence in Christ as a miracle-worker, saying: ‘even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you’ (Jn.11.22). When Jesus promises that Lazarus will rise again, she confesses her faith in the general resurrection on the last day. She has hope in a remote event – part of traditional Jewish faith. Jesus invites her to revolutionise this hope when he says: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’ (Jn.11.25). In these words, Jesus turns upside-down the traditional faith Martha expressed. He smashes into pieces the remoteness of her hope by declaring that the eschatological, end-time ‘Life of the world to come’ is already, right now, breaking into people’s lives. He dares her to step out of her cocoon of inherited faith and make the leap of faith into this new revelation asking: ‘Do you believe this?’ Martha is summoned to take the risk of trusting Jesus as the one who, even now, ushers in the new age. Martha urges us to the same openness as we make our prayers of intercession. Let us not confine God to the narrow concepts we inherit, to our meagre hopes. Let us dare to trust him completely and lead us to new visions.

Intercession is discovering the God who weeps with us

Martha wished that Jesus came urgently to Bethany as a visitor and miracle-worker. She wanted him to come in to the situation, do the job necessary, and then return to his ministry elsewhere. Once again, she finds herself astounded to discover a different Jesus – a Lord who wanted to enter into the very depths of her pain. John tells us that Jesus deliberately waits outside the village, wishing for a private rendezvous with the two sisters (Jn.11.28-37). He wants to greet them as individuals and minister to their hurts: seeing their tears ‘he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ (Jn.11.33). The Greek conveys a sense of Jesus experiencing an inward groaning. John then puts it poignantly: ‘Jesus wept.’ Arriving at the tomb, Jesus is ‘deeply moved again’ (Jn.11.35,38). Jesus ministers to Martha in a way she could never have expected. He is not the miracle-worker who passes through and does his magic. Jesus comes to put his arms around the sisters in compassionate love, feeling their pain and confusion.

In the perspective of the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus continues this ministry of compassion today and for all time from his place in heaven: ‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses’ (Heb.4.15). Indeed, Christ in heaven is depicted as the understanding advocate who ‘always lives to make intercession’ (Heb.7.25). Christ maintains an unbreakable solidarity with all who weep. He continues to share our tears. This is a key element of intercession – as we share our situation with him, inviting him to draw near, we give him permission to enter our pain and confusion. This requires vulnerability on our part. Martha had to turn from a manipulative type of prayer (‘Lord, he whom you love is ill – do something about it!’) to a receptive type of prayer in which she could allow Jesus to weep beside her. In the perspective of Hebrews, we join our faltering prayers with the unceasing prayer of Christ the high priest. John, too, sees an eternal dimension to Christ’s ‘high priestly’ prayer in chapter 17, praying for all time not only ‘for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word’ (Jn.17.20).

Intercession invites us to surrender ourselves to God

Martha’s experience at Bethany calls us to look at intercession in a new light. In this kind of prayer, we are not giving advice to God but rather surrendering to him our hopes and dreams, our best desires for others. Most of all, we are given the opportunity to offer our very selves to God as we intercede, placing our lives at God’s disposal and standing ready, as members of the Body of Christ, to do what God prompts us to do. We may find ourselves, indeed, becoming part of the answer to our prayers, as we begin to listen and discern where our present duty lies. We may wake up to the fact that there is something positive we can do about the situation before us – and find ourselves becoming God’s instrument of love towards the very ones we are holding in prayer. God can only work freely through lives that are yielded to him, and he longs to use members of the Body of Christ to bring the encouragement and support for which we pray.

If we ask ‘how does prayer work?’ we can begin to see that it starts by changing ourselves. In intercession God invites us to change our outlook and be open to new perspectives. He invites us to see the possibilities for glory instead of only illness or calamity. Like Martha, we can see things in a new light and recognise what we must do. We can detect in Martha a series of profound changes. She began in a state of anxiety for Lazarus (Jn.11.3) – behind her prayer we discern a sense of desperation. After a tortuous four day wait during which her brother dies, Martha becomes filled with a spirit of complaint, with even a trace of bitterness and regret: ‘Lord, if you had been here…’ (11.20). But Jesus leads her into a new discovery of faith and into new insight. She moves from disappointment to new confidence: ‘Yes, Lord, I believe…’ (11.27).

Now something beautiful happens to Martha. A new calm descends on her: ‘She went and called her sister Mary, saying quietly, “The Teacher is here…”’ (11.28). Silently, secretly, she experiences a new peacefulness and hopefulness as she seeks out Mary. There is no longer any trace of the Martha who is ‘anxious and troubled about many things’ (Lk.10.41). Martha is changing. She remains the ever-practical one, pointing out to Jesus before the tomb: ‘ “Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days” ’ (11.39).  But there is no evidence of the stressfulness that once characterised her. Joyfully she embraces her brother. And when John tells us about the supper she hosts for the twelve disciples, he writes simply: ‘Martha served’ (12.2). No longer is she ‘distracted with much serving’ (Lk.10.40). Now she seems to reveal a new serenity, a willingness to do what is needed while preserving a constant prayerfulness. The contrast between the two suppers could not be greater – she has moved from stressful anxiety in Luke 10 to a calm purposefulness.

The experience of intercession has helped to effect this change. She has allowed Christ to remould her attitudes and reshape her outlook. She has, indeed, permitted Christ, through the prayer of intercession, to transform her perspectives totally.

Martha’s struggle with intercession teaches us that this kind of prayer, far from bombarding heaven with our petitions, can become a summons to yield ourselves afresh to God, and allow him to work through us. As Evelyn Underhill put it: ‘Real intercession is not merely a petition but a piece of work, involving costly self-surrender to God for the work he wants done on other souls.’2 Ward puts it plainly: ‘The Christian idea of intercession is that it is not a means we employ to persuade God to act in a situation he has presumably overlooked or into which he needs to be a summoned, but a means God employs to summon our help through our membership in the Body of Christ.’3

A common approach to intercession is that it is about ‘handing over to God’ the worries and concerns on our hearts, an entrusting to him of situations, a making of specific requests. This is essentially about talking: pleading with God, advising God. But what if it started to be about listening – a double listening: hearing the cries of the earth and discerning the whispers of heaven? What if noisy incessant intercessory prayer gave way to reflection, and allowed a place for meditating on God’s kingdom and his purposes?

Self offering is at the heart of intercession as we place ourselves at God’s disposal for the outworking of his purposes. God is seeking people who will listen to him and allow themselves to be caught up into his unfolding purposes. In praying for healing, for example, we offer ourselves to be instruments of peace, for as Teresa of Avila reminds us ‘Christ has no body on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours… ours are the hands with which he is to bless and heal people now.’  We find ourselves caught up into the very movement, current and flow of Christ’s self-offering; interceding for others, we find ourselves offering ourselves for others.

On this Passion Sunday 2020, we enter Passiontide in more than one sense. It is not only the liturgical season leading to Good Friday and beyond – it has become a daily reality in which we are grappling with all kinds of suffering, physical, mental and spiritual. We are on our knees – physically and spiritually, finding ourselves more intensely than ever praying for others. May our intercession become a place of deep listening to God and a place of discernment as we clarify what God is asking us to do.

Fr Andrew Mayes, priest of Limassol & Spirituality Adviser, the Diocese of Cyprus & the Gulf

1 Colledge E. & Walsh, J. (trs.), Julian of Norwich: Showings. Paulist Press, New York, 1978, p.251.
2 Underhill, E., Life as Prayer (Collected Papers). Mowbray, London, 1946, p.59.
3 Ward, J. N. The Use of Praying (London: Epworth Press, 1967), p. 87.