Just Before Dawn: A glimpse of the resurrection through the eyes of a dying saint

In this reflection on Romans 13:11-12, Pastor Kelderman tells the story of the death of one of his parishioners. Kelderman first presented this message the week the parishioner died and repeated it as part of an Easter Vigil service at COLAM1991.

Many of you have had the experience of driving through the night. When we lived in Colorado, our family would take an annual summer trip to Iowa and Illinois to see family and friends. On the way back we would usually make Oskaloosa, Iowa, my hometown, our last stop before driving on through to Denver. We liked to leave from Oskaloosa at about 8:00 in the evening and drive straight through the night, arriving in Denver about 8:00 the next morning.

Everyone should drive through the night at least once in his life. There is something spectacular about watching the sun go down and then being awake until the sun comes up again the next morning—only now behind you. Whenever I've done that, I've always been struck at how long the night really is. I've also been struck at how little time there is between the first glimmer and the full light of a new day. In fact, one of the ways I keep myself awake in those predawn hours is to look for that first hint of morning light, and then observe how quickly, from that point on, night passes into day.

Paul says that we live just before dawn: "The night is nearly over; the day is almost here" (v. 12). "The night" is this dark, present age, the age where Satan still rears his ugly head, and evil and suffering still twist and mangle life in God's world. "The day" is the time that's coming when Christ will return, when God will banish Satan from the earth, and life will once again be a paradise of unbroken fellowship with God and each other.

Paul says we live just before that dawn, that new day when Christ will be all in all. "Our salvation," he points out in verse 11, "is nearer now than when we first believed." The moment when the light and glory of God will be fully revealed is almost here.

Christians know how to live just before dawn. Already back in Egypt, God told Moses and the people, "Tonight is the night when I will deliver you from wicked Pharaoh. Be ready to go. You stand at the edge of something new and great." In the years that followed, Israel celebrated the Passover with their shoes on to symbolize being ready to capture the truth that we live at the edge of a new day.

Mary and the other women and the disciples also lived just before dawn. Little could they have imagined, in the darkness of that night before Easter, just how glorious the next day would be. Earthquakes and angels; the tables of history turned; Christ leaping forth from the grave, the victor...

We, too, live just before dawn. Paul says, "The night is nearly over, and the day is almost here." Another dimension to this new order of life that the resurrected Christ creates is just on the verge of breaking out. In this fullest dimension of the new day, Christ will be all in all.

In this new day, swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Here there will never be too much rain or not enough. Here people will keep their promises. No one's body will be crushed from without or go haywire from within. No tears here. No pain. No death.

Paul calls this order of life "the day," and he says that, on the one hand, it is a future reality. "The night is nearly over, and the day is almost here." Who among us would not grant that such fullness of life eludes our grasp here in the night?

But, on the other hand, says Paul, we can also pull "the day" into the present because we live in the power of the light that is Christ. In verse 12, Paul says, "Cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light." In verse 13 he notes that already now we live as though we are in the full light of that new day.

Christians know how to live just before dawn. It's not easy but we know how to do it.

Katie, an elderly saint in our church, had been failing for some time. And now it was clear: she was close to the end. She wanted to see one of the pastors.

I saw Katie on Thursday night. Her family had set up a bed for her in her living room, and I could see she was suffering tremendously. She had to fight for every little breath of air. She also had to fight the pain. So her focus, understandably, was on her suffering, on how badly it hurt. I had worked on this very sermon earlier on the day I visited Katie, and I went home that night and said to myself, "Yes, we certainly do live before the dawn, in the night of a broken, pain-filled world."

I saw her again Friday night. By then all her children and most of her grandchildren had gathered from across the country. Katie was basically sleeping now, taking very short, very shallow breaths. She no longer seemed to be fighting for air; she was just taking what little air she could get.

We thought it would be best not to rouse her from her sleep, so I visited with the family for a while. We prayed together. As I was ready to leave, I decided to just take Katie's hand and say goodbye. She startled, and when she realized I was there, she apologized for sleeping through my visit. We told her we wanted her to rest, but even though she had to pause for a breath between almost every phrase, Katie had some things she wanted to say.

She said, "Pastor, tonight I'm not thinking about my suffering. I'm thinking about the glory that awaits me." She paused. "Pastor, my suffering is so little compared to Jesus' suffering. Isn't that so?" With a weak smile she added, "Isn't it wonderful that Jesus loves me?" Then she quoted that beautiful hymn, "Twas not so much that I on thee took hold, as thou, dear Lord, on me, on me."

Since Katie had not talked this much the whole day, all of her children and grandchildren and even the dog came to stand around the bed. Then suddenly she said, "I can see the angels. I see the light. I am almost to the light." We all knew that we were witnessing something sacred, something splendid, something beyond us.

There were many pauses between the things she was saying, but we hung on every word. At one point she looked at me and said, "How beautiful are the feet of those who proclaim good news." I felt her blessing.

The last thing she said before I left was, "Pastor, when I was a little girl, my uncle ended every one of his prayers, 'Lord, give us thankful hearts.' Pastor, I leave with a thankful heart."

When I drove home that night, I was overwhelmed—not at how dark the night is, but at how close is the daylight, how powerful and real is his light even now, just before dawn.

"The night is nearly over, the day is almost here." Whatever the circumstances of your life this evening, you must realize that you live in the night. Sin and evil and brokenness constantly stalk us in the night.

But the day is almost here. In fact, look, and you can see his light. And already now, Paul says, you can live with the armor of light.

It is in that light that we live, even in the night. It is toward that light that we move. It is in that light that you, no matter where you are tonight, can live with victory and peace and courage, even now, just before dawn.

Duane Kelderman is a pastor at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was a member of the RW editorial council.