Amazing Stories – Wrestle Mania
Sycamore Creek Church
May 27, 2012
Today we begin a new series called Amazing Stories. Whether you’ve read the Bible or not, you know the big stories of the Bible: Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark, Moses parting the Red Sea, David and Goliath, Jesus’ death and resurrection. These are all amazing stories. But there are many more amazing stories in the Bible that aren’t as well known. Over the next several weeks we’re going to explore those not-so-well-known-yet-still-amazing stories. In the end, I think you’re going to find that all the amazing stories in the Bible will help you live into the amazing story of your own life. Today we begin with a story about wrestling.
Who or what do you wrestle with? And I suspect that the wrestling has played a large part in defining who you are today. Probably one of the biggest wrestling matches I’ve had over my lifetime is with my dad. Boys wrestle with their dads in a way that defines them. My dad and I have a lot of things in common, but there are some significant ways in which we are different. I’ve wrestled with him about decisions he’s made in the past, mistakes he’s made, and differences of opinion about what the right thing to do is. Sometimes that wrestling has been obvious: we argue. Most of the times it’s not obvious. I wrestle with my dad in my thoughts. Wrestling with my dad has been significant in defining who I am.
Then there’s the wrestling I did with friends growing up. I wanted to find acceptance and fit in. I wrestled with being funny (or not). The person who made everyone else laugh was always well liked. And one of the key ways to make friends laugh was to be in the know about the funniest TV shows, movies, music, or jokes. These made up the currency of our conversations. So being in the know was important to being accepted and fitting in. Sarcasm was also a key to fitting in. You couldn’t take anything at face value. Then there were girls. Who had the prettiest girlfriend? Who had the most girlfriends? Who had the coolest girlfriends? On all of these fronts, I was no where near the top. I wasn’t the funniest. Most of the time I didn’t have a clue what was going on in culture. I wasn’t naturally sarcastic. And my friends tended to think my taste in girls was a little off. Wrestling with my friends has been significant in defining who I am.
Then there’s the wrestling with myself. If you’ve gotten to know me you know I’m a perfectionist. I have very high standards for myself, and I rarely if ever live up to them. I’ve got an internal dialogue always going on, and it’s not always pretty. It sounds something like this: You should try harder at that. You should be better at that. You need to make sure you don’t make that mistake again. Don’t mess up. If you do that, they won’t love you. You’re not doing everything God wants you to do. This wrestling with my own perfectionism has been significant in defining who I am.
I’m not alone in wrestling with others or myself. I asked my friends on Facebook how they are defined by wrestling with people, things, or situations. Here are some of the responses I got:
About my struggles that define me…probably my low self esteem and my depression, and people pleasing.
As a child I had a parent with a substance issue and she was able to mask it in public for a long time. She was a pretty mean drunk, I protected my sister, and she focused on me. I learned to stand up for what is right, that sometimes you are going to pay a price for doing that, but that it is always worth trying to do the right thing.
I grew up as the youngest child and a Christian in a non-Christian home. I got made fun of for being a Christian and always had to hide my faith in my home. It has led me to not being very willing to be open about my faith as an adult.
Hear any common themes? People wrestle with themselves, with the ones they love, and with the broader culture. This weekend is Memorial Day weekend. Perhaps this weekend as we remember those who gave their lives fighting for our country, you wrestle with having lost a loved one. Or maybe you wrestle with your own memories of war. Or maybe you wrestle with the enemies you fought against.
We all wrestle with people, situations, and things, and this wrestling tends to be very significant in defining who we are.
One of my favorite movies Nacho Libre, a monk, played by Jack Black, wants to be a wrestler. But first he needs a partner. He finds an unlikely partner, but first has to wrestle him into submission and a new understanding of who he is and who he might become.
We’re not the first people to wrestle with those around us. The Bible tells the story of a famous wrestler named Jacob. Jacob was constantly wrestling with others preparing for his big showdown with God. When Jacob was born he was a twin. He came out wrestling with his brother, Esau:
Then the other twin was born with his hand grasping Esau’s heel. So they called him Jacob.* Isaac was sixty years old when the twins were born.
Notice the * in the text. It points you to a footnote in your Bible which tells us that Jacob means “he grasps the heel”; this can also figuratively mean “he deceives.” The name “Jacob” is a play on the word “aqeb” which means “grasp.” Jacob’s name is literally defined by his wrestling with his brother! Their battle is epic and eventually leads to Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright from their father and then hightailing it out of Dodge.
Jacob runs to his uncle Laban’s house where he meets his daughter, Rachel, and falls in love with her. He has to work seven years for Laban to pay to marry her. On their wedding night, Laban tricks Jacob by marrying off his eldest daughter, Leah, first. We read:
So Laban invited everyone in the neighborhood to celebrate with Jacob at a wedding feast. That night, when it was dark, Laban took Leah to Jacob, and he slept with her…But when Jacob woke up in the morning — it was Leah! “What sort of trick is this?” Jacob raged at Laban. “I worked seven years for Rachel. What do you mean by this trickery?”
Genesis 29:22-25 NLT
Jacob ends up wrestling with his father-in-law over his two daughters. The deceiver is now deceived, in the bedroom!
Laban does give Rachel to Jacob as well, but he has to work seven more years. Eventually Jacob wrestles further with Laban and sneaks out of town to go back to his homeland. On the way there it becomes apparent that Jacob is going to have a reunion with his brother, whom he hasn’t seen since he stole his birthright. The night before Jacob meets Esau again, he wrestles with a mysterious man which most people have interpreted as God. Here’s the story:
Genesis 32 (selected verses)
Jacob now sent messengers to his brother, Esau, in Edom, the land of Seir. He told them, “Give this message to my master Esau: ‘Humble greetings from your servant Jacob! I have been living with Uncle Laban until recently, and now I own oxen, donkeys, sheep, goats, and many servants, both men and women. I have sent these messengers to inform you of my coming, hoping that you will be friendly to us.’” The messengers returned with the news that Esau was on his way to meet Jacob– with an army of four hundred men! Jacob was terrified at the news. He divided his household, along with the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps. He thought, “If Esau attacks one group, perhaps the other can escape.” Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my grandfather Abraham and my father, Isaac– O LORD, you told me to return to my land and to my relatives, and you promised to treat me kindly. I am not worthy of all the faithfulness and unfailing love you have shown to me, your servant. When I left home, I owned nothing except a walking stick, and now my household fills two camps! O LORD, please rescue me from my brother, Esau. I am afraid that he is coming to kill me, along with my wives and children. But you promised to treat me kindly and to multiply my descendants until they become as numerous as the sands along the seashore– too many to count.” Jacob stayed where he was for the night and prepared a present for Esau…So the presents were sent on ahead, and Jacob spent that night in the camp.
But during the night Jacob got up and sent his two wives, two concubines, and eleven sons across the Jabbok River. After they were on the other side, he sent over all his possessions. This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until dawn. When the man saw that he couldn’t win the match, he struck Jacob’s hip and knocked it out of joint at the socket. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is dawn.” But Jacob panted, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” “What is your name?” the man asked. He replied, “Jacob.” “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “It is now Israel, because you have struggled with both God and men and have won.” “What is your name?” Jacob asked him. “Why do you ask?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. Jacob named the place Peniel– “face of God”– for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” The sun rose as he left Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. That is why even today the people of Israel don’t eat meat from near the hip, in memory of what happened that night.
Let’s take a moment and look at a couple of key moments in this amazing wrestling match between Jacob and God.
When the man saw that he couldn’t win the match, he struck Jacob’s hip and knocked it out of joint at the socket.
You cannot wrestle with God and walk away the same. You will be “hurt.” Something has to go. God loves you just as you are and loves you too much to leave you there. One of the key character traits you will walk away with from a wrestling match God is humility. Humility hurts. It hurts the ego and the pride.
One time early in my relationship with Sarah, I took her back home to my family’s house. My “little” brother, Rick, was there, and he and I got into a little wrestling match. What was I thinking? My “little” brother is no longer smaller than me. He’s probably easily got 50 pounds or more on me. Maybe even a little taller too. The short of that wrestling match was that it was very short. He picked me up, manhandled me, and tossed me on the couch. All this right in front of the one I was trying to impress with my physical prowess! I learned humility that day, and it hurt. And I never wrestled with my brother again!
Wrestle with God and you will be humbled.
Let’s look at another moment in this amazing wrestling match.
“What is your name?” Jacob asked him. “Why do you ask?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there.
What we wrestle with defines us, and when we wrestle with God, we don’t get to define God. So often we tend to put God in the “dock” and cross examine him. We tell God what he can and cannot do. We tell him what is right and just and good. Forget that he’s God. We act like God and try to tell God how to be God. But when Jacob tries to define God by knowing his name, he won’t give it to him. God’s identity isn’t what’s at stake when we wrestle with God. It’s our identity that’s at stake.
Let’s look at a third moment in this amazing wrestling match.
“Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “It is now Israel, because you have struggled with both God and men and have won [prevail/endure].”
While Jacob wants to identify and define his wrestling partner, the opposite happens. God defines Jacob. Actually, he redefines him. He gives him a new name, “Israel.” And so Jacob becomes the patriarch of the nation ofIsrael. Israelliterally means “he who wrestles with God.” It’s in that wrestling that Jacob finds his truest and deepest identity. His identity is no longer the one who grasps the heel of others, who wrestles with others, but is the one who wrestles with God! And the cool thing about this is that this identity found in wrestling with God is already present in us in some way or another. “Jacob” can also be a play on the word “yakbal”, and in this case “Jacob” means “May God protect.”
Wrestling with God becomes the center of our life, the reference point by which all our other wrestling is defined. Jacob’s identity changes when he wrestles with God, and so does all his other wrestling. So here’s the main point I want you to get. If you don’t get anything else in this message, get this: When your identity is based on wrestling with God, your wrestling with others is redirected toward reconciliation rather than rivalry, revenge, or anything else.
There’s a move in wrestling called a snapdown reroute. It’s where you push into your wrestling partner, and when they push back you use their own energy and momentum to redirect them where you want them to go. Here’s an example.
When we wrestle with God, we push against God, and God uses that energy and redirects it away from things like rivalry, revenge, bitterness, anger, malice, and the like and toward reconciliation.
Keep reading the story and you’ll see this redirection toward reconciliation played out in Jacob’s life. He changes. He isn’t a rival with his brother anymore. He seeks reconciliation. And reconciliation means learning some new behaviors.
Genesis 33:2-3 NLT
Jacob now arranged his family into a column, with his two concubines and their children at the front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. Then Jacob went on ahead. As he approached his brother, he bowed low seven times before him.
Notice the humility here. Before he was stealing from his brother. Now he’s giving gifts. Humility and reconciliation go hand in hand.
When you’re a student in a classroom are the other students rivals or friends? Are you focused only on your own performance and your own grades, or are you helping others learn too? Or what about when you’re in a band together competing for first chair, is the competition all there is in the relationship or are you also practicing with each other teaching your “rival” tricks you’ve learned about how to be a better musician?
How about when you find yourself liking the same girl or guy that your friend likes. Is your rivalry for the romantic interests of this person what defines you, or does your life in God help you realize that there are many men and women that God has created that would be excellent life-long partners?
Let’s look at the workplace. Some of us earn our living off beating the competition to the sale. That’s the kind of economy we live in. But is your life built around competition of this sort so exclusively that you ignore building a community where everyone can prosper? Do you sometimes let that sale go because someone else needed it more? Do you horde what you make or do you give generously to those around you who are in need?
Genesis 33:4 NLT
Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him affectionately and kissed him. Both of them were in tears.
One key new behavior of reconciliation is forgiveness. Jacob isn’t the one in the position to forgive. Esau is. And he does. But Jacob helps by coming to the reunion with humility.
Do you nurse old wounds from family members who have hurt you? Do you repeat those stories in your head and to those around you over and over, letting the bitterness come out every time? Or do you risk the vulnerability of a meeting like the one between Jacob and Esau?
When we wrestle with God, our wrestling with others is redirected away from rivalry and revenge and toward reconciliation. But when we approach those with whom we need to be reconciled, that reconciliation is not a forgone conclusion. Did you notice that Esau brought 400 men with him (33:1)? That terrified Jacob. Reconciliation was not obvious or certain.
As well, while some level of reconciliation does happen between Jacob and Esau it is not complete. We read that “Esau started back to Seir that same day. Meanwhile, Jacob and his household traveled on to Succoth” (Genesis 33:16-17). In other words, while they are living closer than they have for a long time, they put some distance between one another.
We live in a world where we catch glimpses of heaven’s ultimate reconciliation with us and our reconciliation with one another, but those glimpses are not always complete. And yet, sometimes they can be incredibly powerful. We see reconciliation played out in Louis Zamperini’s forgiveness of Mushuhro Wantanabe, the WWII Japanese POW camp guard who tortured him (Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand). We see it in Corrie ten Boom’s forgiveness of the German guard at the concentration camp where she and her sister were kept and her sister died (The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom). We see it in Lloyd LeBlanc’s forgiveness of Patrick Sonnier, who killed his son (Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean). We see it in the Amish who forgave the man who killed a school room full of Amish children. We see it in the response of an elderly South African woman who sought reconciliation following the dissolution of apartheid in the Truth and Reconciliation hearings rather than revenge:
At one hearing, a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an eighteen-year-old boy and burned the body to destroy the evidence. Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body, and ignited it.
The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?” the judge asked. She said, “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.
(What Good Is God by Phillip Yancey)
This woman understood that when you wrestle with God, your wrestling with others is turned away from rivalry, revenge, and you-fill-in-the-blank and toward reconciliation.
Here’s a prayer I found for praying for your forgiveness in your family, but I think it could be prayed for any situation in need of reconciliation:
Sometimes, Father, we are cruelest to those we love the most. Let my family members bear with each other and forgive one another just as you forgave us. Help us get rid of all bitterness, and turn our offenses into testimonies of your love. (Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:31-32)