In seventh grade there was the group of boys who have already become ‘men’ – puberty for them was a thing of the past. Then there was the other half, like me and most of my friends, who were still a decade or two away from puberty. Then, there was Matt, Matt experienced puberty prior to learning to walk.
No where was this categorization more obvious than in Physical Education class. Everyday, class would begin the same, when seemingly a 1,000 seventh grade boys would cram into the small locker room to change into our required gym clothes. Not only was this a challenge because of space, but also, because the past puberty seventh grade men would just walk up and rip the lock off their locker, while the pre pubescent seventh grade boys would be in a panic, scrambling to remember their combination – at the end of class, we would all crowd back into the same locker room to take the required shower all together in the no privacy group shower room. It was terrifying. Coaches would stand at the exit door to make sure everyone had wet hair before leaving. In between the beginning and the end of class, there was the actual class. Small, beanpole, frightened boys playing games such as Dodge Ball against huge and hairy men.
While the Friday Seventh Grade Dodge Ball games were enough to send shivers down the spine of a 7th grade boy….we were unaware of the true evil coming our way – until we did, it all began on a late fall Monday, in third hour.
The Wrestling unit.
The coach had quickly educated us on the first move, this was holding down your opponent or freeing yourself from your opponent. Followed by coach pairing us up with our opponent for the entire wrestling unit. His method of choosing partners is best described as ‘sadistic’. From the beginning pair up, his strategy was painfully obvious – man against boy. The most terrifying of all pairings came at the moment when coach, sporting an evil smirk, yelled, ‘Anthony’, then taking a long pause to build the suspense, his evil smirk gradually widened as we turned and looked at all men waiting to be chosen. There was only one man left, I had been keeping track. He looked at me, and the fear in my eyes, and then turned to Matt and said ‘Matt, you will be Anthony’s partner.’
Coach was now in his happy place.
As Matt and I were called to the wrestling mat, instead of walking to the center of the mat, Matt walked directly to me. He bent his head down to my ear, remember that Matt was a giant, whispering, ‘I will be in thee floor position.’ At this point it was all semantics for me, on the floor or kneeling, the outcome would be the same. I had resigned myself to a death on a Monday in late fall on the mat in the wrestling room during third hour.
As we took our positions, I unsuccessfully attempted to hide my fear, coach blew the whistle. Matt quickly rolled out of my grasp – exactly the way Coach had instructed, his next move, however, was a bit more unorthodox. He rolled to his back, pressed his shoulders to the wrestling mat and yelled, ’Anthony pinned me!’
Coach still had the whistle hanging between his teeth, but now his evil smirk had change to a look of pure confusion. His joy was gone, his sadistic anticipation of a bloody match, had evaporated in an instant.
Matt stood up, looked at coach, and said, ‘I don’t do wrestling.” He then walked away from the center returning to his seat on the edges of the mat.
It was a surreal moment as coach raised my hand in the air and instructed me to return to my seat. The next day we coach announced that we had completed the wrestling unit and would be moving on to the second part of the basketball unit.
Matt was now a hero for all the seventh grade prepubescent boys.
Wrestling is probably the world’s oldest sport, dating back to 3,000 BC. It was introduced into the ancient olympics in the year 708 BC. My, career in wrestling, began, and ended, on a mat in the wrestling room of West Junior High School of Norman, OK, in the year 1973 AD, during third hour on a late fall morning.
The grandson of Abraham, the son of Isaac, the father of Joseph, was a hard and successful worker, but not really a fighter, or a wrestler, he was more of a runner (as in run away), he was a natural manipulator, an even better deceiver, but, he was not a fighter. However, he was about to face the most epic of all wrestling matches.
Jacob was on his way home, it had been 20 years since he had run away from a fight at home, a fight, with his brother which he was sure to lose. During that 20 years he had married 2 sisters, had children by both wives and servants, had amassed a fortune, and realized that he was a good business man. He had also, for the first time, met his match in Laban, his deceptive and manipulative father-in-law….who had warriors to fight for him.
Jacob had weighed the odds of facing his scheming father-in-law, or, facing his brother Esau, who had surely been nursing a very justified grudge for the past 20 years.
As he secretly snuck out of Laban’s house with his wives, children, servants and possessions, he headed home, on the way, Jacob attempted to soften the anger of Esau by sending daily gifts. As he approached the ultimate face to face confrontation, Jacob delayed the inevitable for one more night. Continually calculating the potential risks, Jacob split up his family, people, and possessions and hid them safely to minimize his losses. Then, after enlisting the use of all of his strategies of manipulations, Jacob went back to the overnight camp and prepared for a night alone.
Even with all of his selfish faults, Jacob was a very determined man. His very name meant ‘one who holds onto his brother’s heel’ – which is what he was doing at his own birth. Even in the womb he was determined to get, and be, the most of every category.
Back at camp, as Jacob was alone, there was a man who gave Jacob no option but to engage in the epic wrestling match of a lifetime. It was dark so Jacob could not see who he was against, but the possibilities were endless. It could have been the ghost of his father, Isaac, who Jacob has deceived, or his bother Esau, who Jacob had deceived, or his father-in-law, Labah, who Jacob had deceived. That was just the top three most obvious choices. He did not realize it but he was actually about to engage in an all night wrestling match with God. If the fight had been during the daylight, Jacob would have never engaged, he would have recognized the odds were definitely not in his favor, Jacob would have employed his most successful maneuver, he would have run away. It was dark though, and Jacob unknowingly, engaged in an epic struggle.
God, being a father, fought like a father. He withheld his own power to match that of his child Jacob. This was not just a struggle of Jacob with God, it was also a struggle for God against Jacob. In many aspects, Jacob had been in this wrestling match his entire life. Battling the powers within himself that were constantly at war with what he knew was right. Choosing to mistreat and mislead loved ones, leaving them with no choice but to compete with each other for his love and attention; the very ones who should have been able to rest in his love and acceptance, his wives and his own children. Then there were those who love for Jacob was betrayed by his determination to ‘get more’ – his father and his brother. This was not Jacob’s first wrestling match, but it was his first honest interaction that mattered, this struggle was pivotal and essential in the life of Jacob.
There is something very different in a wrestling struggle and a mere street fight. In a fight your goal is to destroy your opponent, to a the point that he cannot even rise up as the fight is over – in a wrestling match, your goal is to prevail, to take inventory of all of all your resources, your strengths and your mind, and then use those resources to out maneuver, to out wit, and to out discern your opponent. In the dark, when you do not know who your opponent is, reading the situation and the powers against you is much more difficult – all you have is your own resources doing all you can to prevail.
As a sliver of daylight became visible on the horizon and the two men were still struggling, God, released his power through a gentle touch. A touch that displaced Jacob’s hip – a touch that broke Jacob, a touch that reveled to Jacob that this was no ordinary opponent.
‘Let go of me,’ God said to Jacob.
‘I will not until you bless me,’ Jacob replied.
Jacob was beginning to recognize the fullness of this situation. While getting a blessing had been the goal of his life, he was fearful yet interested in the possibilities of this moment. This was a transformative moment for Jacob, his struggle now turned inward, no longer being about prevailing but, instead, it now was about coming to terms with himself. Understanding that his life was meant to be more than just about Jacob, but, quite possibly his life was about something larger.
The Jewish understanding of the concept of ‘blessing’ was not the self-centered, fortune cookie vision, that we have now. A blessing was given so that the blessed would bless others. God was going to bless Jacob so that, in order with the promise that had passed from his grandfather, to his father, and now to him.
Understanding the full meaning a blessing, and understanding the cultural and religious understanding of the day, is essential for us to understand the transformation taking place in Jacob. A truly selfless spirit had to exist to receive such a blessing, and, until this struggle with God, Jacob did not have such a spirit. This struggle was the nudge, or push, that connected the dots for Jacob, he had an epiphany as the sun rose that morning. He was finally ready and willing to receive the blessing that he had been seeking his entire life.
Jacob used his greatest power, the power that he had been endowed with in the womb, the power to hold on. As the night-long exhausting wrestling match depleted Jacob’s strength and power, he held on to this opponent. To which his opponent said,
‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’God to Jacob
It was all very fuzzy but Jacob thought he heard the words ‘striven’, ‘God’, ‘humans’ and ‘prevailed.’ Jacob had no problem with the word ‘striven’ that had been the storyline of his life, a constant struggle with someone, but the words ‘God’ and ‘Prevailed?”
‘Have I just wrestled with God all night? and, did I win?’Jacob to himself
As Jacob considered the implications of his opponent’s statement, an opponent who had now withdrawn himself, Jacob began to have, as he allowed, an experience of transformation. He could see beyond himself, he realized his role in the course of the world, he was humbled and depleted, he was broken, he was being rebuilt. He now walked with a limp, but there was also a change in his countenance, no longer was he dependent on his own wits to survive, life was much bigger now. He was not perfect, there would still be a lot of rough edges but this was at least a partial metamorphosed Jacob. As can be seen in the name he gives to this place, ‘Peniel’, meaning ‘I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ It was a transformation that his life was no longer about prevailing, he wasn’t a prevailer, he was a runner – he had not prevailed, all he had done was to hold onto God, and in the struggle, he had been preserved.
He was now ready to face life, all the unknown, with no guarantees, no assurance of victories or personal gain, no recognition of importance or worth, but now, he was facing life with hope, sustainability, mercy and humility, all grounded on love.
In in order to understand the pertinence of Jacob’s wrestling match with God, to our own lives, let’s jump forward a couple of thousand years. We end up at a wilderness place with thousands of hungry humans along with an exhausted Jesus and his weary disciples. Jesus has been denied even the shortest of breaks as he has, once again, has seen the oppression, the suffering, and the misery of the people. His compassion and mercy compelled him to address their needs. His passion makes it impossible to ignore. His, was a gut response to the needs, it pushed him to release, to heal, to free. There was an everlasting line of needs, one after the other. Jesus lived in the Kingdom of Heaven, even while on earth, a dwelling place that he calls all believers to live in, a place where the physical needs of others are of priority to address, when the earthly reality is that the Roman Imperial system, as well as the existing religious system, did not see physical needs such as health, hunger, disease, poverty, shelter, abuse, and education as issues of priority.
So, when the disciples suggested that it was getting dark and that it would be best to send the crowds home, Jesus was perplexed. There were still needs to be met, plus, now the people were hungry.
‘You feed them,’Jesus to Disciples
‘We do not have anything to give them,’ the confused followers said, ‘we didn’t plan on feeding anyone, let alone a crowd this size. We don’t have anything! What good can 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread for all these people?’
While what they didn’t have was the earthly focus of the disciples, the kingdom focus of Jesus was on what they did have. They had a starting point. Jesus took that bread and the fish, and broke it all apart and distributed the small, tiny pieces into the baskets to be passed among the people.
The disciples had to be horrified at the thought of passing these basically empty baskets among the hungry crowd, to a crowd expecting something great to happen. The disciples had to be frustrated. Jesus needed to rest, the crowds were hungry, the line for help was endless, they were in the middle of no where, it was time to go home. The disciples were upset, they were struggling, they were in an epic wrestling match. It was daylight, they could see their opponent, it was the whiny and complaining crowds with all their needs, their suffering, their oppression, their ancestral passing down of this oppression based largely on pigmentation, their nationality, their societal placement, the color of their skin, their enslavement, their poverty, and now their hunger. They were not prepared and now it was on Jesus, and the disciples to provide.
‘When would this end?’ They questioned.
The more their frustration simmered the more they realized that the crowds were not their opponent, much like Jacob, they were wresting against Jesus, they were wresting against God.
Jesus was the problem, God was the source of this ridiculous situation. If Jesus did not have to stop every time a hurting person appeared this would not have gotten so out of hand. If only God were to instruct Jesus to dismiss the needs sometimes, if only he would moderate the passionate compassion of Jesus. Afterall, there were more important and pressing things to get to.
As with all of Jesus miracles, the miracle of creation to this moment of needs and hunger, we do not know the technical details of the abundance of food that filled every person in attendance that day, but we do know that the day ended with an abundance. It could have been a magical moment when the tiny broken pieces strangely multiplied, or it could have been an even more miraculous transformational moment as the people put themselves aside realizing they didn’t have to take more than they needed, or possibly seeing the contribution of the fish and loaves spurred them to realize they also could contribute. Regardless of the how, the reality is that there was not only enough food there was actually an abundance.
The disciples then realized that their struggle was not with the crowds, nor was it with Jesus, it was with themselves. It was about a struggle with trust that came with living outside of the Kingdom of heaven where earthly things are allowed to hinder us from answering the call of God. Keeping us from addressing issues of injustice, oppression, deep inherited baggage that is more than humans can bear, hunger, sickness, racism, hatred, dismissal, disregard, poverty, and all suffering. All the things that tangle our roots and restrict our sight.
A wrestling match can bring us to transformation if we hold on. A struggle can show us what we have instead of what we do not have. What is your struggle, what is God bringing into your vision?
With an attitude of willingness to be a part of God’s answer to our prayer, let us pray.