Wrestling not Rasslin’
Today I am going to tell you about the longest wrestling match in modern history. When I say wrestling, I mean actual wrestling not rasslin’. Rasslin’ is not a sport; it’s a glorified soap opera with costumed actors who do choreographed tumbling and gymnastics routines with one another. What I am talking about is a sport that goes back to ancient Greece and is practiced as part of the modern Olympic Games.
At the 1912 Olympics games in Stockholm Sweden, wrestling was done Greco-Roman style. In Greco-Roman wrestling points are given for various pins, takedowns, and throws of the opponent. The wrestlers must win the most points in two of three periods to win the match. At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, there were 170 wrestlers in five different classes from eighteen different countries wrestling in the Middleweight division. The event was held outdoors at the Stockholm Olympic Stadium and after seven rounds only three wrestlers remained – along with an Olympic sized event for the record books.
After seven rounds, the semi-final match was a three-way match between Martin Klein of Russia, Alfred Asikainen of Finland, and Claes Johanson of Sweden. In the first match, Johanson had beaten Asikainen but since it was double elimination tournament, each wrestler had to lose twice so Asikainen had to wrestle Klein and the winner would wrestle against Johanson in the finals.
The match between Asikainen and Klein happened on a scorching sunny day at the outdoor stadium. The combatants wrestled for an hour and were then given a break. After that, they wrestled in thirty-minute periods with short breaks after each period. One period led into another and another until finally, Klein pinned Asikainen for the win – exactly eleven hours and forty minutes after they started. The match was so grueling, so exhausting, that Klein was unable to compete in the final match and Johanson won the gold medal. In the history of the modern Olympics this is still the longest wrestling match and
Jacob becoming Israel
From what we read in the scripture reading earlier, Jacob did a little wrestling too and from the looks of things, his match was an Olympic sized event. The event was a long time in coming for Jacob who had lived a life of deceit and being deceived over and again. Jacob had agreed to serve Laban, the father of Leah and Rachel, for fourteen years in exchange for his daughters in marriage. Jacob had prospered under Laban, though not necessarily by the most honest means. Jacob made a deal to take sheep and goats born with certain marking from the flocks of Laban and then rigged it so that the sheep and goats would mostly be born with those markings. At a certain point around the time that Laban begins to realize just how much he has been swindled, Jacob hears God told say “Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred…” and he is more than happy to. Not only that, but Laban’s daughter Rachel stole some of the ‘household goods’ from her father as well when Jacob left with his share of the flocks. Laban gave chase and finally Jacob was forced to make a covenant and basically swear to stay out of Laban’s lands.
One problem leads to another for Jacob and now he was on his way to his homeland, where his brother Esau lived, the brother he swindled the family birthright from. When we pick up the story at the beginning of chapter thirty-two, Jacob is sending gifts of various animals and slaves hoping to appease his brother. Jacob is afraid and even more so when he finds out that his brother is bringing four hundred men with him. Jacob sends his servants with more gifts and instructions to put space between the flocks and the people to give Esau time to see everything Jacob was giving him.
Jacob then takes his wives, children, and a couple of maids and sends them across a stream while he stays on the other side. During the night, “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” The word for wrestle in Hebrew literally means get dusty. In other words, roll around on the ground grappling with someone else. No one got the upper hand and the best the man could do was to knock Jacob’s hip out of joint. As dawn approached, the man asked to be released and Jacob refused unless the man blessed him. The man asks Jacob’s name and when he tells the man, the man replies, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob asks the man’s name and the man refuses to tell Jacob, but he blesses Jacob instead. Jacob names the Peniel because he has seen God face to face, and yet his life is preserved.
Us Becoming What We Were Meant to Be
So, what do we get out of this story? What lesson do we take from Jacob’s epic wrestling match?
Jacob wrestled with the man/God and we need to as well
At the end of the passage, we find out that Jacob has wrestled with God. The name Jacob gives to the place where the match takes place is Peniel, meaning face of God. The idea here is that Jacob did not turn away from God or run from God when he was dealing with God. He did so head on, directly, without trying to be sneaky about it. This was rare for Jacob but in this case, he bares down and faces God directly.
When we are dealing with life, there is a lesson in this for us too: wrestle with God directly. Throughout the stories in the bible characters address God in a direct, honest way.
- Abraham and Sarah both laughed at God (Genesis 17:16-18; 18:11-13)
- Job accused God of unfairness (Job 34:4-9)
- Elijah whined at God (1 Kings 19)
- Gideon asked God over and over for proof of God’s intentions (Judges 6)
These are not the only stories where people questioned, doubted, or challenged God to try and find meaning. They never did it in a haughty or arrogant way, but they did do it in an honest and direct way and so should we. Consider the words of Jesus,
11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
God is not so weak or so timid that we cannot ask honest and even hard questions or sometimes struggle with understanding. Part of our growth comes from struggling/wrestling with our selves, our beliefs, our traditions and there is nothing wrong with an honest question or doubt. I think there is something wrong, however, with not engaging that question or doubt head on.
Jacob refused to leave without a response; we should too.
When the man/God tried to pull away from the struggle Jacob refused. “I will not let go until you bless me,” he says with disjointed hip and all the pain that comes with it. When we engage God and seek to understand, we must be relentless to a certain degree about it. There is no throwing up a half-hearted question and then saying, “Oh well. I guess God will get to it sooner or later,” and going back to our business. We need to be as Jacob was – like a bulldog latched onto a piece of meat, hanging on for dear life, refusing to let go.
Jacob was changed because of it; we will be too
The wrestling match did something to Jacob – it made him Israel. Before that, Jacob was “the heel/trickster/over-reacher/supplanter”, none of which are flattering or the sort of thing you want people associate your name with. After the encounter, after wrestling and contending and hanging on for dear life, Jacob became Israel meaning god rules/protects/preserves. After that, the stories of Jacob show him in a different light. Jacob reconciles with his brother, moves back to the family land, and lives a life of relative peace before relocating to Egypt during a famine. Jacob dies an old man and his body is returned to Canaan and buried there.
When we truly encounter God, we can be changed. In the same way that a caterpillar begins life as one thing and becomes a butterfly, something totally different, we who follow Jesus are changed. We too begin life in one way and hear the voice of God calling to us. We respond and in that moment we begin being changed, moving toward our own cocoons where we will emerge as something very different from what we started.
The real question is will we allow ourselves to be? Will we be willing to hear God encourage us to continue in those things that lead us to him whether it be through scripture, prayer, meditation, circumstance, any of the many ways that God engages us? Will we be willing let go of those things that don’t? Things like false traditions, comfortable untruths, habits and ways of life that lead us to places of brokenness?
All of this requires wrestling with God, and this is a marathon match, a lifelong pursuit where we find ourselves learning, unlearning, and learning anew in our search to understand God. This is the Methodist way of working through and into our relationship with God. We use scripture, tradition, experience, and reason in order to answer the challenge of defining what our trust in God looks like to us. Using this method along with prayer and awareness of God in our daily walk is how we wreste. The Psalmist writes, “And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.” Seek to know the name of God or better translated to know the person of God. Put your trust in the relationship that comes out of that seeking. Know that God will not forsake the honest, searching soul.
Hang on, wrestle well.
Arndt, William F., F. Wilbur Gingrich, F. W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Brown, Francis, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001.
Campbell, Ted A. Methodist Doctrine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011.
Hamilton, Adam. Creed: What Christians Believe and Why. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016.
The United Methodist Church. The Book of Disciple of the United Methodist Church. Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2016.
Willimon, William H. United Methodist Beliefs. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.
 The story of Jacob begins in Genesis 25
 Genesis 32:24 (NRSV)
 (Brown, Driver and Briggs 2001, p.7)
 (Brown, Driver and Briggs 2001, p.819)
 Luke 11:11-13 (NRSV)
 1 Peter 3:15-16 (NRSV)