And the Winner Is…..

Posted by on Aug 5, 2014 in Faith Words |

Words of Faith

Rev. Rita S. Platt

Aug. 3, 2014

“And the Winner Is…..”

Scripture Reading   Genesis 32: 22-31

I have been thinking about the word, wrestling. When I think about the word, I remember growing up in Pittsburgh.  In Pittsburgh, wrestling happened Saturday night on channel 11, as Bill Cardille started STUDIO WRESTLING with the words, “90 minutes of unorganized mayhem featuring the greatest wrestlers in the world.”

And big stars took on local talent: Jumping Johnny De Fazio  and Bruno Sammartino and villains like Killer Kowalski and  Gorilla Monsoon.

Studio wresting left the air in 1974 (1).

If you are a child of cable when I say wrestling you might think “World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) …Hulk Hogan.”

When I think of wrestling, I think of all those times that my husband wrestled with our children when they were young – lovingly taking turns pinning each other on the floor – and laughing and laughing.

It is with these images that I approach the only wrestling match in the Bible.  It is the story where Jacob wrestled with God – or with a vision of an angel or a man or whatever he was wrestling with that night – on the edge of the Jabbok river. 

The word “wrestle” is a very old, old, old Hebrew word and that word is used only once in the whole Bible.  The other old word that is used in the story for today is Jabbok. Jacob wrestled at the Jabbok River and the word Jabbok means “wrestle.” And so we find a story about Jacob wrestling with God on the edge of the Wrestle River.

These old words give you the feeling of the Arabian nights, the Bedouin tents. You have the feeling for the desert winds and the blowing sands and the donkeys and the old leather tents. The story of Jacob wrestling with God is a story that was told over and over again at the campfires so long ago as the story was passed from one generation to another.

Now, the key to this whole story is Jacob. The word “Jacob,” according to many scholars, means “cheater,” “manipulator,” “little liar,” “cunning” and “slippery.” These are people who will cheat you if given half a chance; they will take the shirt right off your back.  That is the story of Jacob.

There are two wonderful stories about Jacob that demonstrate how and why Jacob deserved the name.

The first story is about Esau, the older brother… Jacob manipulated Esau, his older brother, to give up his whole inheritance, his whole birthright, for a bowl of  oatmeal!!!

The second story is about how Jacob cheated his elderly father, Isaac. Poor old dad was experiencing great difficulty seeing and hearing. Jacob took advantage of these physical weaknesses. Placing hair on his hairless arms and making sure he smelled like the animals, he pretended to be Esau and when his father doubted him, he said “ I am Esau.” And so the blind father gave the wrong son the blessing.

Twenty-one years went by and Jacob had not changed. Fundamentally, he was still a cheater. He decided that it was time to go back and see his older brother. He was scared that his older brother was going to kill him. So how does this cheater approach his older brother? Carefully and cleverly. First, he sent his animals across the Jabbok River into his brother’s land; then he sent a herd of servants; then he sent Leah and all the children by her; then he sent Rachael and all the children by her. Meanwhile, he remained on the safe side of the Jabbok River. This is a very clever guy. So he stayed on the safe side of the Jabbok River.

That night, on the safe side of the Jabbok River; Jacob camped in his tent by himself. He tried to go to sleep. He couldn’t sleep.  He was really nervous. He was very afraid about meeting his brother tomorrow. So that night, inside of himself, he started wresting and wrestling and turning and turning and twisting and twisting and he started dreaming. He didn’t know if it was a dream, the dream seemed so real. Was it real? Was it a dream? In the middle of that dream, he found himself wrestling. Was it with an angel? Was it with a man? Was it with God? Was it his conscience? He was wrestling, and this old angel let Jacob pin down one hand of the old angel and then the other hand of the old angel, the old angel playing games with Jacob in the middle of night and the dream. Finally, Jacob pinned the old angel. When he pinned down the old angel, Jacob said, “I want a blessing from you.” The old angel said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “My name is Jacob.” The old angel said, “I will bless you. From now on, you will be called, Israel, which means, let God rule your life.”

Names are important, when they are changed it is a sign of something big…Saul becomes Paul, Abram becomes Abraham, Sari becomes Sarah. So there becomes this huge symbolic change, from Jacob to Israel. And then the angel whapped him in the hip and Jacob stumbled out of the tent the next morning with a limp.

Now, what does all this stuff have to do with you and me so many years later?

We all wrestle with God at night, rolling this way and then that way, and we can’t get to sleep. It feels like the Arabian nights but here it is, two or three thousand years later. And we are still wrestling after all that time.  And what are we wrestling with?  Is it our conscience? Is it our thoughts?  Is it our fears?

Sometimes the wrestling match goes on for a night or for a week or for a month or for a year….

God could use a show of force and pin us down; God could end it quickly.  If God wanted to, God could make us believe and obey. But that isn’t the way God wrestles.

The character of God is remarkably displayed in this passage. God’s goal is not to punish Jacob’s conflictive character, but to challenge it and reshape it so that Jacob is able to live into his promised destiny as Israel, which, according to verse 29, means “one who strives with God and humans.” Jacob’s story is a much-needed reminder that in the life of faith, there is no one model to which we must conform and submit. God entertains all kinds of characters and all types of personalities.

Admittedly, I’m a control freak. (That is probably not a surprise to many of you here this morning.)  I want to be in charge of my own life. Maybe you do, too. The problem with fighting for control is that too many times, each of us experiences things we cannot control. Yesterday I attended the memorial service for a fellow clergywoman. Michelle died of breast cancer at 54 years old. She was a gifted woman, with a loving spirit.  She was a wife, a mother and a pastor. I have attended memorial services for other clergy that in my opinion have left too soon, and when these things happen I struggle with God. Scriptures like, “My ways are not your ways” don’t always help; sometimes I want to know why?  You have asked those questions, too.  When that happens we are crippled; finding it difficult to function, we walk around with a limp.  We fall prey to circumstances, which include things like the economy, relationship struggles, natural disasters, illness, accidents, and so much more. But I want to make the decisions about where I’m going, what I’m doing, what challenges I will face, and how I will face them. I want to decide who is going to walk with me on this journey.

Like Jacob, I’m willing to fight for the right, too. Even though I know these things are completely out of my control there are times when I refuse to give in.

We spend a lot of time on the banks of the Jabbok River. Some wrestle whether to move into a retirement home or remain in our house. Others wrestle with illness; whether or not this chemotherapy is going to work . And still others of us wrestle about our children or our grandchildren and ask the question at night, “Why aren’t they turning out like we had planned and prayed for?”

We all wrestle with a lot of things in life. But underneath all of these wrestling matches that are part of our lives is this: who is going to win?   It is our choice.

God is not going to force us to quit struggling; God has given us free will.  But when we let God win our lives will never be the same.

So on Saturday night, or any other night as you and I wrestle with God there will be no third party announcer deciding “and the winner is. . . ”   Each time it occurs it is up to us to announce “and the winner is…”    How will we finish that statement?


(1)     Remember when Studio Wrestling  with Bill Cardille