PROPERS: THE EPIPHANY
TEXT: EPHESIANS 3:1-12; MATTHEW 2:1-12
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, JANUARY 6, 2019.
ONE SENTENCE: The Manifestation of Jesus continues to this day.
Louis Zamperini’s life has been well-chronicled. He died in 2014 at a ripe old age of 97. His story had been told in three movies and multiple books.
He had lived a full life. The child of immigrants, he at first spoke no English in his adopted home state of California. He got in trouble with the law. He became a track star, running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, setting a record for the last lap of the 5,000 meter race. He was introduced to the new German Fuhrer, who asked: “Ah, so you are the fast one?”
Zamperini went on to join the Army Air Corps and served as a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific Theater. While on a search-and-rescue mission over the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean, his plane developed mechanical problems, causing it to ditch in the open waters. Eight of the 11 crewmen perished.
That is the part of the story where Zamperini’s story becomes well-known. He and one other crewman spent 47 days at sea, in a tiny life raft, before beaching on one of the Marshall Islands. He was immediately taken prisoner by the Japanese navy.
The ensuing story of his captivity is one of valor, bravery, torture, isolation, hard labor, and privation. Laura Hildebrand’s best-selling book about the first 30 years of his life is appropriately named: Unbroken.
Despite the brutal treatment he received at the hands of his enemy captors, he endured. He survived. And he returned home from captivity to marry his pre-war girlfriend.
It is what happened next that makes Louis Zamperini’s story even more remarkable.
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For years following the war he was further-tortured by his memories. He would have recurring vivid dreams of strangling his captors. He sank deeper and deeper into the bottle.
Today, we would likely say he had some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
His life was unraveling… untethered. His marriage was falling apart. He was not sleeping. The year was 1949, and the city was Los Angeles.
It was in that same city and year that a 31-year-old North Carolina preacher was having his first crusade. It was originally scheduled to run for three-weeks, but because of an overwhelming response, it had been extended to eight weeks.
The crusade was in a massive tent, set-up on a parking lot, built to hold 9,000 people. A young Billy Graham preached night-in and night-out.
And it was in that tent that the struggling former prisoner-of-war encountered the Risen Christ. Louis Zamperini learned the meaning and power of the word forgiveness. His life was never the same.
Jesus Christ had manifest himself to Zamperini.
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Today – January 6, the Epiphany – is one of the great feast days of the Church year, right up there with Easter, Christmas, All Saints, and the Ascension.
Another name for it is the Manifestation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.
In the second lesson – from Ephesians– and the gospel lesson – fromMatthew– we have two examples of dramatic manifestations that molded the church’s understanding of this day.
First, we have Paul. Over his years as the most remarkable Christian evangelist and theologian, Paul wrote many letters. His voice and teaching endure to this day. He has molded the church’s doctrines for two millennia. His understanding of Jesus’ ministry is why we read his letters even now.
But, as we all know, he did not come there easily. His story is one of the great examples of manifestationwe have.
The story is told several times in the Book of Acts. First, it is told as it happens, then Paul recounts the manifestationmultiple times in his own words. We know it well: Paul, a zealous Pharisee, was on horseback, riding toward Damascus, to persecute the young church there.
He was struck by a blinding light – knocking him from his horse. Blinded, he heard a voice from the light, “Saul, Saul. Why do you persecute me?”
Saul was his Jewish name, and the voice which spoke to him out of the light was the ascended Jesus – some years after his crucifixion.
Jesus instructed Saul to travel on to Damascus, and there to lodge in the home of a noted Christian. It was there, on a street called Straight, that Saul became Paul, and he was formed into a potent Christian missionary.
Jesus had, indeed, manifestedhimself to Saul. That encounter is memorialized in countless classic paintings.
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The story of the Magi – the Three Kings – is another, and earlier, example of a manifestation.
The Magi were from the East – it is believed to be Persia, modern-day Iran. The story is confused with Christmas, but it was actually a later event.
After following a heavenly light, they came to Bethlehem and found the infant Jesus and his mother, Mary. They paid homage to him, these three Gentiles, and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Even in the stable, and as an infant, Jesus’ manifested himself to the three Magi. It is a event we remember thousands of years later. It is a remarkable story.
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The manifestationof Jesus is not limited to Saul crossing the barren land to Damascus. Neither is it limited to the three Magi approaching the stable stall, to see the infant king. Nor is it restricted to such dramatic turnabouts as the life of Louis Zamperini.
Manifestations of Jesus happen to ordinary people – like you and me. They happen even today – in normal lives, in routine circumstances.
It is not necessary for us to be in biblical times… to be crossing a desolate landscape on horseback… to be recovering from the devastating impacts of being a prisoner of war… or to approach Bethlehem’s manger.
A genuine manifestationtakes place in mundane circumstances. It may come in the midst of a significant personal failure – one in which your life is turned upside-down. It may come in a moment of celebration, when you realize in some transcendent way how blessed you are. Or maybe it comes when you hit bottom due to some addiction or brokenness in your life, and you realize, surprisingly, that you are not alone.
Paul Tillich called this the experience of being grasped by the ultimate concern. Slowly but surely… or maybe even quickly and unambiguously… you realize that you are cradled in the hand of something that is well beyond your understanding.
In such moments – as you are overwhelmed by the power of the experience – you are like the apostle Thomas: “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”
My core message is this: Sacred manifestations of Jesus continue today. Do not be surprised. Be open. Be patient. Be thankful when he crosses your path.