Text: Gen. 32.22-31
The Beijing Olympics begin next week. Even those of us who would usually prefer a root canal to watching a sports’ event find the Olympics fascinating. As ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to say, it’s all about the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
One of the oldest sports is that of wrestling. The original Olympics long ago in Greece included wrestling, running, throwing various objects, and not much else.
Wrestling is an intuitive sport. Men are aggressive; there’s no way around it. One of the reasons that men die at younger ages than women is that our hormones drive us to do risky and stupid things, such as drive too fast and get in fights. Put two young men on a mat and with the slightest provocation they are likely to “duke it out” or one will try to wrestle the other into submission.
Dancing is at least as old as wrestling and resembles wrestling to a degree. I suspect that dancing channels some of the aggressive urges that might otherwise go into wrestling or other forms of violent behavior.
Dancing, like drama, the visual arts, and music, began as a religious activity. Dancers acted out their relationship with the gods. They ritually portrayed their adoration of the gods, their submission to the gods; they danced to persuade the gods to send rain or victory in battle.
But even wrestling had at least a brush with the sacred. The ancient Olympics were sacred to the god Apollo and began with a priest sacrificing a bullock.
Another similarity between dancing and wrestling is that originally dancing was not a matter of choosing an attractive partner of the opposite sex for an hour or so of relatively innocent physical contact while moving rhythmically to the strains of music. Originally, dancing was exclusively a same sex activity. Indeed, today in many parts of the world it still is. In traditional cultures, men dance in groups and women dance in groups but they never dance together. When the waltz was invented in early 19th century Europe, it caused quite a scandal when young men and women actually touched each other as they twirled gracefully around the ballrooms of Vienna.
This morning we heard the story of the most famous wrestling match of all time: Jacob wrestled with a messenger of God. It was a match of Olympic proportions that went on all night. And in the end, God won only by playing dirty: he had to dislocate Jacob’s hip.
It seems to me that our relationship with God can usually be characterized as either dancing or wrestling. Sometimes we dance with God and sometimes we wrestle.
There are people who seem to dance through life. They seem to lead charmed lives and go from victory to victory. They move to music only they can hear and are graceful and confident.
Others seem to wrestle every step of the way. Nothing comes easily. Life is a constant contest, a battle.
I don’t begrudge those who dance their way through life, although I confess to feeling envious. But I can’t help thinking that perhaps there are things that can only be learned through conflict and defeat.
Jacob was more a wrestler than a dancer. He wrestled his brother Esau for the blessing of their father Isaac and won. He wrestled his uncle Laban to gain the hand of his daughter Rachel. And finally he wrestled with God.
I’d like to point out several significant features of the story of Jacob wrestling with God’s messenger:
First, it took place in the dark. I imagine that most of us sometimes and perhaps a lot of the time, wrestle with God in the dark. The wrestling matches often occur during those sleepless hours after midnight and before dawn when our minds just won’t stop. Where are you God? we want to know. Why is life so hard? Just like wrestlers who wrap their arms around each other in a rough embrace, our minds wrap themselves around these questions, and we tumble over and over until our minds are as out of joint as Jacob’s hip.
Second, Jacob emerged from his wrestling match injured. As I said earlier, God fought unfairly. He employed an illegal move and dislocated Jacob’s hip. Why was that? Certainly God did not need to injure Jacob. I think the best explanation I can give comes from a short play by Thornton Wilder. In the play a man who has lived with chronic illness is told that “in love’s service, only the wounded soldiers can serve.” Think of that. The armies of earth’s nations accept only those who can pass rigorous fitness tests, but the armies of love are made up of the wounded. That is because it is our very wounds that enable us to love. Without our wounds, how could we feel the pains of others? Without our wounds, how could we learn compassion?
Imagine the armies of love marching into battle. One limps; another leans on a crutch; another is in a wheelchair. And yet no army on earth is more powerful. The very wounds that cripple love’s soldiers make them invincible in love and compassion.
Thirdly, Jacob sought a name for God and received a new name for himself. Whether we know it or not, we try to name God in our wrestling matches. In the Old Testament naming always implied that one had a degree of control over the things and people one named. In Gen. 2. God brought all the creatures of earth before Adam who named each one of them. Symbolically, this indicated Adam’s lordship every other creature God had made. We want to name God, acquire a degree of control over God, but cannot be named or tamed. When Moses asked who spoke to him from the burning bush, the divine voice said, “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In other words, “mind your own business, Moses.”
On the other hands, Jacob did acquire a new name – Israel. We never leave a wrestling match with God unchanged. It always changes us in ways we do not expect and sometimes it makes us new people altogether.
Finally, Jacob entered the wrestling match as a solitary individual but emerged from it as a people. Jacob had sent his entire entourage on ahead of him before he lay down to sleep for the night and woke to find himself wrestling with God. But when the match was over, he was no longer Jacob the Trickster, the Deceiver, the Conniver; he was Israel – God’s own people. All religion is inescapably corporate. Every religion involves us in relationship with others. To become a Muslim one must confess that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet in the presence of three Muslims; to become a Buddhist one makes the so- called “refuge vows”: “I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the dharma (teaching); I take refuge in the sangha (community).” The most fundamental Jewish prayer begins “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God”. It’s never my God but our God. In early Christianity, a person being baptized stood in a pool of water to be baptized, and as the bishop poured water over the convert’s head, she or he would say “I believe in God the Father…” but when they entered the church to participate in the eucharist for the first time, they confessed “We believe in God the Father…” They entered the water of baptism an individual but emerged part of a people.
With apologies to Lee Ann Womack, I hope you dance more often than you wrestle with God, but I suspect that every life is some combination of wrestling and dancing. There is one other similarity to note between wrestling and dancing: they both involve contact with another. If you dance with God, then follow God’s lead wherever it takes you. And if you wrestle with God, don’t let go. Because whether you wrestle or dance, you will be changed. You may not emerge unscathed, and you may even walk with a limp for the rest of your life, but however bumpy the ride, hang on for dear life,