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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr. David's sermon

17th July 2005

Fr David Shepherd

Trinity VIII

Ladders seem to feature in parish churches. Most churches have them tucked away. Some are decidedly rickety others more up to date. Then there are the brave souls like Chris who are happy to climb them to change light bulbs &c. In my previous parish the churchwarden who had a heart condition was always up his. Once I found him alone in the church up his stepladder that he had placed on a trestle table resting on the backs of the pews. I was always fearful of finding in a heap one day, although I'm pleased to say he is still going strong.

Ladders seem to have a draw for us men, as we grow older. My granddad in his early eighties would wait for my granny to go out before climbing his. I guess it's all to do with risk and the need to prove masculinity, to defy death even.

A ladder features in today's OT reading from Genesis. It is Jacob's ladder, a ladder that has captured the Jewish and Christian imagination down the centuries. Maybe the male fascination with ladders taps into the folk memory of the biblical story.

Jacob's experience of faith was very different form ours. His life was nomadic. Always on the move he would have struggled to maintain his subsistence life style. In today's story Jacob was on a journey through the desert. It was at a time in his life when he had nothing. He feared for his safety and he feared for the future. Exhausted, he settled down to rest for the night with a stone for a pillar.

While he slept he dreamt. He saw a ladder (or a stone staircase) linking earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. It was a kind of spiritual 'Grand old Duke of York!' The desire to reach heaven, linking the ordinary everyday with all its trials and tribulations to the divine is one we can all identify with. Its good to spend time thinking about such places in our own Christian lives be they obvious holy places or ones only known to us, say a church of a bench in the park.

Jacob was granted a vision of God, a theophany to use a lovely technical word. 'I am the Lord your God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to your offspring.' So not just heaven and earth, but also past and future were brought to bear on that place in Jacob's present. Jacob a vulnerable young man with an uncertain future was promised land for his large tribal family to inhabit and move through, the Promised Land. In everything God would be with him. 'Know that I am with you and will keep you where ever you go, and will bring you back to this land.'

That is God's promise to us too. That he was with us in the past, that he is with us in the present and that he will be with us in the future. If place and memory are important to us there is the promise of return. If we come from God then we shall return to God and be at home in him. 'In my father's house there are many mansions', Jesus assures us.

Waking from his dream, Jacob declared, 'Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it!' If our faith tells us that the Lord is here, often it is only afterwards that we sense it as the rather over quoted & sentimental words of 'foot prints in the sand' tell us.

The passage ends with holy ground and a holy place. 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven.' Jacob marked it with a pillar and named it Bethel, which means house of God. He then moved on. His moving on should remind us that in the Judeao-Christian tradition there is always an ambiguity about holy places and holy houses. In the OT king and temple replaced the Ark of the Covenant (God in a tent) with unhappy consequences. In the NT Jesus is Emmanuel God with us. The NT knows no holy places. The tradition of the church reflects that ambiguity; think of the conflicting Catholic/Protestant attitudes to shrines and holy places.

We can give thanks for own spiritual ladders, times and places when we have received an assurance that God has been with us, is with us and will be with us. The remembrance of them is good; there is the promise of return that comes with the willingness to move on in our pilgrimage through life. Jacob's ladder is an inspirational story with great power to link our ordinary earthly experience with the heavenly and the divine.

There is plenty to get us thinking next time we are up a ladder!


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Comments about this site or problems? Contact Webmaster (Colin Richards) at Last updated 10/07/2005 09:30 Author: David Shepherd