If you are a Christian, what are you waiting for?
Or, in other words, what is the content of Christian hope?
This is an advent question since the Christian faith is lived out in the overlap of the ages, awaiting the return of the King.
To make the question more specific, how is God’s judgment hopeful?
In her book of (mostly) sermons related to Advent preached over decades, Fleming Rutledge addresses this question from various angles.
One angle is how divine judgment is good news.
I’m referring mostly here to material from two sermons within a section of the book on ‘Justice and Final Judgment’. The sermons are ‘Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment‘ and ‘The Great But‘
Some key points she makes include (and this sort of summary does not attempt to capture the flow of a sermon which is dialogical, the text of a spoken address)
1. The judgment of God as good and necessary
‘Judgmental’ is a relatively new word, not appearing in the OED until the 20th century. Today, to be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable and a perjorative description of an intolerant person.
Rutledge comments that in the past judgment was a process of discernment leading to wisdom in assessing the value or truth of something.
The real theological problem here is that we have lost sight of the fact that an act of judgment may very well be an act of liberation (180)
… The coming of the Lord will be accompanied by the final judgment over all things – over the waste we have made of God’s creation by wars and greed and rapacity and cruelty and self-aggrandizement at the expense of the poor and needy whom God loves (180-81)
(My comments) We don’t have to look far back into 2019 to know what she is talking about.
If we struggle with the idea of judgment, we need to look into the heart of darkness – not to ignore those raped, abused, trafficked, used and discarded; not to close our eyes to injustice and exploitation, to those that deal in arms at the expense of millions globally. God will judge the destruction of his good creation and those he loves.
And as we look upon this broken world – our hearts should cry out for the justice of God to be done.
- Syria: 13.1 million people needing humanitarian aid. 6.7 displaced. 350,000 or so dead.
- Yemen Civil War. 22 million displaced. 230,000 dead. 380,000 cholera. 1.8 million children suffering malnutrition
- Royhinga ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military: 750,000 fled. Rape and murder, systematic destruction of a people with no place to call home.
It is these sorts of evils we need to look at in the face, especially if
we are unable to live with the thought of the judgment of God because we don’t want to allow it into our tidy concept of God as loving, forgiving, and accepting (175)
… in such circumstance, we can understand that the judgment of God upon all evil is good, right, and necessary, A culture of impunity is nothing less than hell. (175)
2. God will save us from judgment but he will not save us without judgment
But, if we are honest with ourselves for a minute, we know that we cannot stand before God’s judgment either. It’s too easy to see the manifest wrong others do and either naively or self-righteously exempt ourselves.
This is the ‘BUT’ Rutledge refers to. How are we going to survive such judgment? She refers to this Advent text from Isaiah 57:15-19
For this is what the high and exalted One says –
he who lives for ever, whose name is holy …
I will not accuse them for ever,
nor will I always be angry …
I was enraged by their sinful greed;
I punished them, and hid my face in anger,
yet they kept on in their wilful ways.
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort ..
‘But I will heal them’ is the only source of hope for God’s people.
Hear also this advent text from 1 Thessalonians 5:2-5
for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.
Judgement will come – but those in Christ are children not of darkness but of light. They have no fear of God’s final judgment because judgment has already been passed in Christ.
This is the reason for Christian hope – the saving love and compassion of God.
GOD WILL SAVE US FROM JUDGMENT, BUT HE WILL NOT SAVE US WITHOUT JUDGMENT (182)
3. Personal Judgment
And such judgment is more than a ‘not-guilty’ verdict. It is transformative. The Christian gospel is anything but naive about human nature. It is not as if Christians are somehow morally superior people who have ‘done good things and will therefore be rewarded’ (181)
Even our best efforts are like dirty rags (Isaiah 64:6). We need the judgment of God.
Rutledge is refreshingly honest here. There are not many leaders / preachers who speak as she does of a growing weariness of personality traits with which she (and therefore others) have struggled, even though she has worked hard at overcoming them. She looks forward to God’s refining and purifying judgment when all that is sinful and twisted will be ‘judged and gone forever’.
We rejoice to know that it is the Lord himself who will come to be our Judge. (184)
This reminds me of Eugene Peterson who said something along the lines that the gospel brings us to the end of ourselves. Self-obsession is a dead-end, it is in losing our lives that we find them; it is in repentance and humility that we come into the presence of God.
These themes are not popular today which is why Rutledge’s writing on Advent, and her book on the cross, are so important.
Do you think of the judgment of God as ‘good and necessary’? What causes you to cry out for justice to be done?
Do we have space in our ‘tidy’ theology of a loving God for a God who is also a fearsome judge?
What is it about your own life and character that you look forward to having purified and transformed by the judgment of God?