You’ve seen it, likely you’ve done it in one form or another. Sometimes it’s playful, sometimes it’s serious. Wrestling makes you sweat, occasionally bleed, and sometimes, in the heat of a match, you just might get hurt.
Wrestling is old, first appearing in the ancient Olympic Games way back in 708 BC.
Wrestling is American, or at least we’re pretty good at it. No other country has more wrestling medals in the modern Olympic games; we’ve got 132.
Wrestling is local. The first NCAA college Wrestling Championship was held in 1912, right here in Ames Iowa.
Wrestling is next door. Or at least it is for me. My next-door neighbor is Bobby Douglas. Bobby wrestled in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, later served as an Olympic coach, and was the Iowa State wrestling coach from 1992-2006. Highly successful, and in multiple wrestling halls of fame, as neighbors we often talk about how to keep our grass green. And he’s really good at that too.
Wrestling is family. Again, at least it is for me. My younger brother Clayton wrestled from grade school through college; I grew up near the sport. He, too, was good, going undefeated his senior year of high school and winning the Maryland state wrestling championship for his weight class.
While I’ve been blessed with the height in our family – I’m six inches taller – Clayton has always been the better athlete. Our family debates who is better looking, tho these days I’m fairly sure he’s winning that one as well 😊
And wrestling is, of course, scripture. The scene from Genesis 32 prominently features a matchup between Jacob and an unnamed man. That scene is nothing less than gripping.
I seemingly can’t get away from wrestling, it’s all around. And, for better, worse, or otherwise, neither can you.
I’d like to suggest that the text of Jacob’s overnight sporting adventures features a couple of really, really good wrestlers. And having two really good wrestlers makes for some great sparring. To help me grapple with this text – grapple, that’s another wrestling word – I asked my state-champion brother Clayton to chime in about what makes for a good wrestler. He also shared how he sees this wrestling text which made for a really fun conversation.
So what makes for a good wrestler? Many things. Here are the top seven.
#1 Sometimes good wrestlers have family tragedy in their past. That was certainly the case for American wrestler Dan Gable. Born in Waterloo Iowa, at age 16 his older sister was raped and murdered in the family’s living room, a horrible tragedy. In an interview with the History Channel Dan says he didn’t devote himself fully to wrestling until after that, because he wanted to give his parents something positive.
The backstory for Jacob is filled with sadness too, tho in Jacob’s case he was often the one causing it. He was born a twin, the second of two, and does all sorts of dastardly deeds to his family to steal their inheritance and blessing. This ends up causing a rift between his parents. The conflict gets so bad he runs off, escaping so his brother doesn’t kill him. Then he ends up working for an uncle, Laban, and the two of them squabble constantly over money, and property, for years. All this conflict culminated in a moment where uncle Laban wanted to kill him too.
Was this family dysfunctional? Oh yeah. Trickery, lies, deceit, theft, and some near misses with attempted murder. This is what Jacob grew up with.
#2 To be a good wrestler you must train for the match. In modern wrestling you train for years to get good, often practicing hours a day with a combination of strength training, running, stretching, and practicing techniques. While scripture doesn’t mention anything like that, Jacob had been busy, preparing for this unexpected day, in some ways, for over 20 years. He trained as a shepherd, responsible for flocks of thousands of animals. It was tough work, dirty work, and the hours were long. It gave Jacob plenty of time to physically prepare.
#3 Good wrestlers excel when they get their head in the game. Clayton tells me that, as a younger wrestler his thoughts could be summed up in four letters: FEAR. Fear of losing, fear of doing something wrong, fear of letting his team or family down. He used to feel sick to his stomach before matches, like he was going to throw up. Fear will do that do you.
But as he learned the sport these feelings of fear subsided. Fear was still there, yes, but balanced with a certain calmness. At the height of his career, right before a match, Clayton tells me he would literally think about nothing, emptying his mind of all distractions.
Jacob too, had some things on his mind before the match.
After being estranged from his brother for twenty years – remember all those lies, deceit and theft Jacob was guilty of – he decided it was time to make it right with brother Esau. To fix the rift Jacob tried to offer gifts, but received back some unexpected news. Big brother was coming to meet him, in person, and was bringing 400 men. Scripture says this caused Jacob great fear and distress. I bet – it’s easy enough to imagine this brother was coming to kill him.
But Jacob didn’t just fear for his own life, he worried his entire family could be harmed. To protect them he sent the family away, with all his earthly possessions, leaving Jacob entirely alone.
It was in this moment Jacob found himself face to face with an unnamed man, wrestling until daybreak. Tho Jacob couldn’t have been in the best place mentally he found a way; given the choice of fight or flight he chose the former and engaged with this unknown combatant.
#4 Good wrestlers set goals. To be good at wrestling, as is in life, you must set goals. Getting to the right weight, the ideal percent body fat, practicing moves to perfection, whatever it takes to pile up those wins, this is how good wrestlers approach their craft.
Yet the match in scripture isn’t a normal one. Jacob appears to be winning the match, the unnamed man realizes he isn’t prevailing. But instead of going for a pin, and the win, the two just keep wrestling. At one point the unnamed man asks Jacob to let him go. Jacob refuses. Instead Jacob holds on tight, never letting go, until the man agrees to bless him. Jacob’s goal in this match wasn’t to win. Instead Jacob had his eyes set on a much greater prize.
#5 Often good wrestlers, out of necessity, have to play through the pain. This isn’t ideal, tho sometimes in a match you can get hurt. When the unnamed man realized Jacob had the advantage he struck him on the hip, pulling it out of joint, ouch!
A dislocated hip is incredibly painful. Often patients can’t move the leg, and, if there is nerve damage, they may lose feeling in their foot and ankle. Yet Jacob wrestled on, refusing to let go.
#6 On occasion good wrestlers have special wrestling names. Cheesy pop wrestling leagues like the WWF and WWE do this really really well. A new name allows the person to become more than what they are, gives them a new identify, and suggests the person just might have special powers. Often we can remember the wrestler names better than the person’s actual name. How many of these you can ID?
Dwayne Johnson goes by the wrestling handle………………….. The Rock
André René Roussimoff, one of my favorite wrestlers, is better known as………………….Andres the Giant.
Terry Gene Bollea, a big name in wrestling, is…………………………..…Hulk Hogan
Jacob and the unnamed man begin the match with seemingly generic titles, nothing flashy. But by daybreak there’s a name change for Jacob, and a big reveal for this unnamed guy.
After all that wrestling from these two, as tiring as it must have been to grapple overnight, and as pained as Jacob must have been from a dislocated hip, the unnamed man gives Jacob a new name. Jacob’s new wrestling name is Israel. This arguably regular guy with a history of theft and greed in his past, had, after this wrestling match, been changed. He was now, quite literally, known as the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The unnamed man was about to get a new wrestling handle too, courtesy of an epiphany from Jacob. Upon hearing his own new name, Israel, which means may God prevail, Jacob realized who he had been grappling with. Jacob was suddenly so sure of his combatant’s identity he named the place Peniel, which means face of God. While theologians and renaissance painters don’t all agree – some say the wrestler was God, others an angel – most all conclude Jacob was wrestling with the divine. And Jacob didn’t realize that until daybreak.
#7 Finally, good wrestlers lead a life transformed. Think back to that American wrestler I mentioned earlier, Dan Gable, who endured an awful family tragedy as a teen. After fully committing himself to wrestling he excelled at Waterloo High and was a student athlete right here at Iowa State.
While at Iowa State he won 117 matches in a row, along with two NCAA championships and three All-America titles. He then went on to win the 1972 Olympic gold for his weight class before heading to the University of Iowa in 1976. It was there his team won 15 national titles in 21 seasons. Incredibly the Hawkeyes were the Big 10 champs in each of those 21 seasons. And to think, all of that sprung out of a family tragedy in Dan’s youth almost too horrible to name.
Jacob, now known as Israel, also went on to lead a life transformed. Right after this wrestling match with God his older brother arrived with those 400 men. But Jacob’s divine wrestling match had changed him, forever. In that match he was freed of guilt, shame, and fear. He knew God was with him. Jacob then asked for, and received, forgiveness from his brother for all the ways he had wronged Esau. The two grown men then embraced. The two grown men then wept. The two grown men had put their differences aside and reunited as family.
It was as it should be.
It was as God intended.
And it took an all-night grapple, with God, for Jacob to receive the blessing of a family reunited.
Wrestling. It’s all around us, one-on-one matches available in any shape and size you like. While you may not find yourself physically wrestling any time soon, we find ourselves wrestling, with so many things, all the time.
We spar with friends, and foes, and family, over just about anything.
We wrestle with our past, who we’ve hurt, who has hurt us.
We grapple with our demons, our addictions, our own failings.
Next time you find yourself desiring some sparring, with whoever or whatever it is that you face, let me point you to a new wrestling partner.
Wrestle, instead, with God. Our creator is tough enough to handle whatever you’ve got.
And then let me point to you a great example of how to do it: model Jacob.
Get yourself trained up. Do it through the reading of scripture, prayer, fasting, and living into our world in God-honoring ways.
Take all your fears, your shame, your baggage, bring them with you. And then lay it all down, at the foot of the cross, before the match begins.
Clear your head, set some goals, and then grab hold of your Creator. Hold on tight, never letting go. Keep wrestling, grappling with God to resolve whatever it is you face.
And remember, that you too have been given a new wrestling name. In the waters of your baptism you have been claimed as a beloved Child of God. You are one of God’s own. Carry that title with you where-ever you go. Never forget that.
For it is in the struggle, with God, where we finally let go of all else holding us back. It is in the struggle, with God, where we finally receive the forgiveness, and the peace we so often lack. And it is in the struggle, with God, and with God’s word, or simply shouting to the heavens in times of need, it is there where we find release from what binds us, what keeps us down. And it is in that moment, while holding onto God with everything we have, even if it hurts sometimes, it is there, where we finally receive the blessing we’ve been seeking all the while. Amen.