Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
A Sermon for Advent: Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment
Trinity Anglican Church,
Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge November 16, 2008
[The Lord said] because of the iniquity of [
The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God. (I Peter 4:17).
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ…(I Thessalonians 5:9)
family, like most families, loves to tell and retell certain stories. One of
our most beloved stories concerns some favorite
“Well!” said the grandfather. “You certainly don’t want to use that. We’ll just leave that part out.”
“No, Grandpa!” exclaimed the bride-to-be, “I love the dreadful day of judgment!”
The approach of the Advent season sets before us the question, How shall we love the dreadful day of judgment?
As a good many commentators have noted, the Advent season actually begins before the first Sunday of Advent. It’s a seven-week season, beginning after All Saints Day. In the Northern Hemisphere, the weather cooperates with the change in the lectionary readings. Have you noticed? When the change from Daylight time to Standard time takes place, when the darkness comes on so abruptly, that’s when the lectionary begins to take on a note of foreboding. Prophecies of doom from the Old Testament begin to appear. From the gospels, we get parables about the coming judgment. Last week we had the parable of the bridesmaids who ran out of lamp oil in the middle of the night, and tonight the parable of the judgment upon the man who wasted his investment. “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ Jesus said that! Did we know that Jesus said things like that?
begins in the dark.
…as to the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters…the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them…and there will be no escape. (I Thessalonians 5:1-3)
The intended effect of the readings at this time of year is to disturb our peace and security. The purpose of this seven-week season is to take an unflinching inventory of darkness. That’s why the Anglican tradition refuses to celebrate Christmas until Christmas Eve. It’s one of the very best things about us, one of the things we really do well. Our liturgy is designed to show that we are willing to refuse the easy comforts of the commercial Christmas. Advent is an exercise in delayed gratification. One of the classic readings for the season, a lament from Isaiah, expresses the mood:
Behold [O Lord], you have been angry...in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags. We fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away….you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.
When we observe the seven-week season of Advent, we ponder these things. Like the falling leaves and the early darkness each year, the 24-hour news cycle performs on cue. I have never had any trouble finding Advent messages in the newspapers.
is the front page of The Globe and Mail
two days ago. At the top of the page, the latest incarnation of James Bond
minus his wit and easy charm—he is grieving, depressed and angry, more disposed
than ever to use his license to kill. Just below, “Faces of Suffering in
Exhibit number two: A three-part article for Remembrance Day,
also from the Globe, about the problem
of remembrance in three countries where people died at the hands of their own government—the
Soviet Union under
Exhibit number three: Stephen Lewis, that admirable Canadian,
is collecting testimonies from women who have survived politically motivated
My students ask me, how do we preach about judgment when there is so much resistance to the topic? It would be hard to exaggerate the degree of this resistance throughout the church, even though it is one of the most important and pervasive themes throughout the Bible—not only the Old but also the New Testament. A student in one of my classes bravely chose to preach about judgment even though one of her Christian friends scolded her for it. “Why do you want to focus on all that sin and judgment?” Last year a well-known Canadian theologian and his wife were visiting my husband and me and we took them to one of our local Episcopal churches. The gospel lesson was one of Jesus’ teachings which prominently featured judgment. The preacher—who was a recent graduate of a distinguished American theological college that shall remain nameless—announced that he would not preach on the gospel that morning because “we don’t believe in a God of judgment.” The visiting theologian and his wife were, shall we say, appalled—and I wanted to crawl under the pew in mortification.
shall we love the dreadful day of judgment? One woman working with Stephen Lewis
to collect testimonies said, “We are exposing the fact that [
shall we preach judgment? 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, then what we need to do is envision those
Afghan girls whose only crime was to seek education. The resurgence of the
The trouble is, as I am sure you have already figured out, is that we don’t mind God being wrathful against somebody other than us. The difficulty comes when judgment draws close to us, to our friends, to our group, to our favorite cause. How are we to understand the words of Peter? How shall the Church stand first in line for the dreadful day of judgment?
We begin to do this by remembering that the Church is not a collection of autonomous individuals, but a family, brothers and sisters of Christ by adoption and grace, “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:19-20). When we reflect upon that gospel truth, doesn’t it become clear that there is nothing, not even God’s own judgment, that can destroy a structure built upon the cornerstone that is God’s only-begotten Son? In that sense, truly the fellowship of the baptized has already passed through the judgment, as John says. In that sense the words of Paul in our reading from First Thessalonians are also true: “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is true security, a security that the empires of the world with all their might cannot pretend to convey.
But this true security does not simply lift us clear of this world. We must live this perilous existence along with everybody else. This is a world where cancer strikes the just and the unjust indiscriminately, where punishment is meted out to those who do not deserve it while those who do deserve it go free, where the poor get poorer and the rich, even in this financial crisis, are only a little bit less rich than they were but a whole lot less inclined to be generous this Christmas. This is the world of Advent, a world that makes no moral sense to the unaided eye. Advent begins in the dark. Anyone that tells you otherwise is living in denial.
“But you are not in darkness, brothers and sisters,” continues the Apostle Paul:
You are not in darkness for the day [of judgment] to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not children of the night or of darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.
As children of the day we stand first in line at the bar of judgment by repenting of our sins and the sins of the whole Church and the sins of the whole world. We are involved in each other because God was first involved in us. The wrath of God and the love of God are two faces of the same thing. The world will be purged of its iniquity in the consuming fire of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the Advent theme. He will come again to set all things right. In the meantime we take up the weapons of his warfare: “Since we belong to the day, let us…put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (I Thessalonians 5:8) Anything we can do—anything at all, however small or large—any deed of kindness or generosity or courage that eases the load of someone else or brings truth and justice to light—such deeds are signs of the advent of the One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty (Revelation 1:8).
“The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God,” but “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him…
“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing….” and the power of the Ruler of the universe will be your strength and your shield, your rock and your fortress, your shepherd and your judge, your Saviour and Redeemer, your Lord and your God.
 Actually she called him Père, but I have simplified it for retelling. The veracity of this story was vouched for by the bride’s mother, who was present for the conversation and greatly relished telling about it. The bride, clearly a feisty and perspicacious sort, later became a well-known travel writer and radio personality.
The Power of Memory,” Globe & Mail,
November 8, 2008 in three parts: “The Value of Shame” (
Stephanie Nolen, reporting from
Douglas Harink of King’s
 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24)