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SERMON: SUNDAY OF ST JOHN CLIMACUS 2021


SERMON FOR SUNDAY of ST JOHN CLIMACUS

April 11, 2021

When I was a kid in public school, we used to have an amazing choral music program run by Miss Allen. Her enthusiasm for teaching music was boundless, and her joy was infectious! In those days we learned all kinds of patriotic and Christian spiritual songs. It was a different world back then! One of the songs that we learned was an African American song called “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” The words that I learned go like this:

We are climbing Jacob's ladder

We are climbing Jacob's ladder

We are climbing Jacob's ladder

Soldiers of the Cross.

Every rung goes higher, higher

Every rung goes higher, higher

Every rung goes higher, higher

Soldiers of the Cross.

Sinner do you love my Jesus?

Sinner do you love my Jesus?

Sinner do you love my Jesus?

Soldiers of the Cross.

If you love Him, why not serve Him?

If you love Him, why not serve Him?

If you love Him, why not serve Him?

Soldiers of the Cross

Keep on climbing, we will make it

Keep on climbing, we will make it

Keep on climbing, we will make it

Soldiers of the Cross.

Yes, dear ones, this was a slave song. While working, slaves were generally not permitted to converse, but they were permitted to sing. They worked long and brutal hours, but their remarkable faith enabled them to transform their heavy labour into a spiritual exercise. In their hearts they turned their work into a sacrament, an offering, to their true Master, our Lord Jesus Christ. This attitude is in keeping with the words of St Paul who said: “Whatever you are doing, do it for the Lord!” (1 Corinthians 10: 31). And in another place he says: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). 

Brothers and Sisters, the slaves that sang this song and many others like it were believing Christians. They desired to transform every minute, every hour, and every day into an opportunity to advance, to progress in Christ. They knew the story in the Bible about Jacob’s ladder. It can be found in Genesis, chapter 28, and it goes like this:

“And Jacob went forth from the well of the oath, and departed into Haran. And came to a certain place and slept there, for the sun had gone down; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it at his head, and lay down to sleep in that place, and dreamed, and behold a ladder fixed on the earth, whose top reached to heaven, and the angels of God ascended and descended on it. And the Lord stood upon it, and said, I am the God of thy father Abraham, and the God of Isaac; fear not, the land on which thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the sand of the earth; and it shall spread abroad to the sea, and the south, and the north, and to the east; and in thee and in thy seed shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed. And behold I am with thee to preserve thee continually in all the way wherein thou shalt go; and I will bring thee back to this land; for I will not desert thee, until I have done all that I have said to thee. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and said, The Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How fearful is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen.28, 10-17).

For the slaves, God revealed to them that their lives of suffering and toil could be a spiritual ladder of co-suffering with Christ, an offering of their blood, toil, sweat and tears. If their earthly masters despised them, they knew that their heavenly Master loved them and was waiting to receive them at the top of the ladder to heaven. For the monks and the nuns, they viewed Jacob’s ladder in much the same way: as podvig, spiritual and ascetical struggle, as ascent to paradise. As David asks in the Psalms, “Who shall go up to the mountain of the Lord, and who shall stand in his holy place? He that is innocent in his hands and pure in his heart; who has not received his soul in vain, nor sworn deceitfully to his neighbour. He shall receive a blessing from the Lord, and mercy from God his Saviour.

This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek the face of the God of Jacob” (Psalm 23/24: 3-6). The monks and nuns saw (and see!) the Ladder of Divine Ascent as a ladder of virtues, a ladder of freedom from the passions. They also see their labors of prayer, fasting, chastity, poverty, obedience, and stability as offerings of themselves. Now how did they come to adopt Jacob’s ladder as a model of spiritual ascent? St John Climacus is how. “Climacus” is not a last name, but it means “of the Ladder.” On the OCA website for this day it says: “The Fourth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to Saint John of the Ladder (Climacus), the author of the work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The abbot of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in the 6th century, St John stands as a witness to the violent effort needed for entrance into God’s Kingdom (Mt.10: 12). The spiritual struggle of the Christian life is a real one, ‘not against flesh and blood, but against ... the rulers of the present darkness ... the hosts of wickedness in heavenly places...’ (Eph 6:12). Saint John encourages the faithful in their efforts for, according to the Lord, only “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt.24:13).

These words make it clear that St. John’s wise guidance in spiritual ascent is not limited to monks and nuns alone; it is useful for us living in the world too! Podvig and ascesis are essential to every believer, and that’s why St John’s book “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” has always been a lenten reading choice for Orthodox Christians.  If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s written for monastics, but it’s principles and prescriptions are helpful for all.

I’ll conclude with the words of the words of the late and ever-memorable Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky):

“Let us remember this: Saint John Climacus has described the ladder of spiritual ascent: then let us not forget that each Christian must ascend thereon. The great ascetics ascended like swiftly-flying eagles; we scarcely ascend at all. Nonetheless, let us not forget that, unless we employ our efforts in correcting ourselves and our lives, we shall cease our ascent, and, most assuredly, we shall begin to fall. Amen."


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