Sermon: Snakes and Ladders: Is the ladder only a dream?
The Right Reverend David Stancliffe, Former Bishop of Salisbury
Preached on 18th April 2011
by The Right Reverend David Stancliffe
What did you dream of becoming when you were young? The childhood dream is always that you’ll make it; that somewhere someone will give you a leg up. Whether you want to be an engine driver or a celebrity footballer, a princess or a ballerina, somewhere there’ll be a lucky break, if you have the gump to grab it. In the days of Samuel Smiles’ Self Help, the bible of the self-made man, the language was all about getting a foot on the ladder and working your way up – lifting yourself by your bootstraps. And it’s a language essentially still current in educational circles: when I went to re-open a Church School few years ago after a massive re-build, a remarkably confident 10 year old sung what had clearly become a theme song for the school. It’s titled: ‘I believe’ – what we might call Credo – and some of the text goes like this:
When I look up to the stars,
there’s a burning deep inside me
and I feel a power growing in my soul.
There is something I can sense
deep within, a dream to guide me,
and I know that I am reaching for my goal.
I can do anything at all,
I can climb the highest mountain,
I can feel the ocean calling wild and free.
I can be anything I want,
with this hope to drive me onward,
if I can just believe in me, me, me.
When the skies are dark and grey,
we still know the sun is shining:
and though it’s out of sight, its light is glowing still.
And as long as I believe
there is nothing I can’t wish for;
not a dream that I’m unable to fulfil.
I can do anything at all . . . . .
if I can just believe in me, me, me.
And there’s more of the same. Sung first as a solo by this fetching, fair-haired girl, with a very slight lisp, it was then taken up by the whole school. It clearly chimed in with the mood of the children and what would be called the ethos of the school. It’s the perfect anthem for the modern school which has as its goal that everyone should reach their own potential, which sounds just what we all want.
And then I counted the number of times the first person singular was used in just the first verse and the chorus. The answer is nineteen times: 19 ‘I’s, or ‘me’s, or ‘my’s.
It was not until I asked the question of the Director of Education, that he had seen anything wrong with this being sung by a Church School. The assumption everywhere in the modern world is that if you concentrate on me, me, me then you’ll be a success, and you’ll climb every ladder.
But the gospel, and the Judaic tradition in which it stands, has always held that self-seeking – what I want – is the root of sin, and that climbing ladders you set up in thin air will lead to a fall. ‘Not my will, but yours’ is Jesus’ prayer to his Father in the garden,
Of all the games of your childhood, they don’t come more Biblical than Snakes and Ladders. As you throw the dice, you work your way slowly up, and every now and then get a lucky break – shooting up a ladder – only to land as often as not on the leering head of an enormous serpent, and find yourself right at the bottom again. Its all there in Genesis: the ladder that links earth and heaven – the hope that one day we will make to the presence of God himself – turns out to be only a dream. The reality is that the serpent of self-will: me, me, me, becomes a greasy pole down which you slide swiftly, till you land in a heap at the bottom.
That there would be a ladder – that there was a way up and out – was always the dream. A great, ruined ziggurat somewhere on the plain led to the myth of Babel; once people had tried to build a great mound, ramping its way into the heavens. The corporate endeavour had so alarmed the deity, the story goes, that he had confused the tribal languages, co-operation had faltered and the project had had to be abandoned. So when Jacob is on the run from his brother, knowing he’s tricked him, and lies down to snatch an uneasy sleep, he dreams of a ladder – a ladder linking earth and heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending upon it.
For the Jewish people, the dream that one day there would be a link between earth and heaven, that God would once again restore the original connection between the human and the divine, severed by Adam’s sin, remained. But it was always only a dream.
So when he wakes, Jacob marks the spot, building an altar and consecrating it, but hurries on his way to pursue his ends.
This is the narrative that John has in mind when he constructs out of some half-remembered saying the narrative you have just heard. Who is this strange figure who appears from nowhere? Where does he come from and where is he going? Why should he have any claim on these peoples’ lives? On yours or mine?
Remember the dream, that one day there would be a ladder, linking earth and heaven? Well, says Jesus, the moment has come: I’m that ladder. What I offer is a secure link between two apparent opposites, poles apart. “Do you believe because I said that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than that; truly I tell you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Now, Jesus is saying, is the moment when the old dream becomes a reality: I am the ladder, the link between the two realities you had thought were utterly and permanently divided. For generations we have been dreaming, hoping, longing for a link between earth and heaven, between God and his people. This moment is the climax of all that you had been longing to see.
And while you may think this is fanciful, just remember that the word in Greek means ‘a ladder’.
Where do you stand with snakes and ladders? Do you still dream of a big lift that’s there for the grabbing if you can avoid stepping on the head of a snake? Or do you actually believe that the ladder is there – given, prepared, ready – Christ himself – just waiting for you to put your foot on the first rung? Is that how you are living your life?
And it is not long before we are introduced to other hints. In the dialogue with Nicodemus in Chapter 3 on where Jesus had come from, and how it’s possible to make a new start, we are not only told that the new birth, the fresh start, the new creation, is by water and the spirit – the two elemental forms in the opening verses of the Genesis narrative, which we’ll meet again as the bookends of the Passion narrative in the Maundy Thursday foot-washing and the Easter Evening breathing over the disciples, but we are also told that this Son of Man will be lifted up as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on the pole in the wilderness. This bronze serpent, the sign of death brought by the fiery serpents, acted like an antibody, like serum. If you had been bitten, look on the bronze serpent and you will live. If you have been bitten by the old serpent of sin and self-will, look on the sign of death – the sinless one, given by God, yet nailed to the pole of the cross, and you will have life. So Jesus can declare later (in Chapter 12), ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ That’s why the twisted serpents of Aesculapius have survived as the doctors’ symbol, and form the pastoral staffs of Orthodox bishops: you are healed by anti-bodies, physical or spiritual. The sign of death – the crucified one – is what brings life, and we shall explore the consequence of this for our wounds on Good Friday.
You may have forgotten Snakes and Ladders, or thought of them only in terms of a childrens’ game. But they are one of the key elements in introducing us to how John’s mind works, as he tries to unravel for us how these ancient dreams and longings become a reality, and we meet for the first time what was undoubtedly for the would-be believers of the first century of our era one of the major stumbling-blocks to faith: how can death – a senseless, cruel death with the waste of all those opportunities for doing good and bringing wholeness – be understood to be the way to life, to freedom and fulfilment. What John is doing is to pile up – almost without our noticing it – these hints and pre-echoes, so that when we come to the Passion narrative itself we will be tuned in to the allusions and undercurrents that unlock the layers of meaning.
That’s why the church has always read the whole of John’s Gospel through in Lent, as we still do today, and why – after beginning with Snakes and Ladders – I turn tomorrow to the matter of Hopscotch, or – as its called in old High German – tempelhupfen.
© David Stancliffe 2011