It was the talk of the summer: DEFLATEGATE. You NFL fans out there know what I’m talking about but let me recap: the New England Patriots, last year’s Super Bowl Champions, were accused of deflating footballs below the minimum pressure allowed by the NFL rules. A deflated football, according to the investigators, was easier for Patriot QB Tom Brady to grip, making him more accurate with his throws and therefore, gave him and his team a competitive advantage. The most compelling evidence was that one football was a whole 2 pounds per square inch (psi) below the minimum pressure.
How much pressure is 2 psi? By comparison, a can or bottle of soda is pressurized to about 30 psi and earth’s atmosphere – the air we’re breathing and sitting in right now – is at about 14 psi. It’s not much….in fact, if you go check your tires’ pressure after church this morning you’ll probably discover they’re under inflated by 2 psi, and you probably didn’t even notice.
So why the big deal? Because people hate a cheater, that’s why. But the cheating – or not cheating – isn’t the point this morning. The point is this: looking for opportunities to gain an advantage, that’s the objective of all sports. It’s true: the aim is to maneuver, strategize, do whatever is necessary – within the rules, usually – to gain a competitive advantage over one’s opponent. Teams and individuals seek out opportunities to beat their opponent – exploit weaknesses, capitalize on strengths, devise strategies, collect scouting reports, and make in-game adjustments. The goal is to win after all, right? Football, baseball, basketball, soccer….even wrestling, that’s the name of the game.
Speaking of wrestling……you could say that Jacob is a wrestler. That’s what Jacob has been doing his whole life – seeking opportunities, maneuvering to gain an advantage. He gets his desperately hungry brother Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of soup. He tricks his blind, old father Isaac to bestow the family blessing on him, rather than his older brother. He strikes a bargain to work 7 years for Laban’s daughter to gain as a wife, only to be tricked by Laban and given his older daughter Leah – the less attractive one; why the Bible thinks it’s important to mention that detail, I have no idea, but it’s in there. So he works another 7 years for Rachel. Jacob even maneuvers with God….in Genesis 28, God promises to fulfill the blessing of his ancestors – the same blessing Jacob stole – and Jacob responds by hustling a deal with God: “IF you will do all these things for me and prove you are with me…THEN you will be my God.” Heck, Jacob even came out of his mother’s womb, gripping the heel of his older brother Esau, probably trying to pull him back so he could be firstborn! Jacob is a wrestler, all right, seeking every opportunity to gain an advantage, and upper hand.
You have to wonder if that’s exactly what Jacob expected out of this wrestling match with God in our story today. Jacob’s facing the worst possible scenario: he’s returning home and gets news that Esau, his older brother he stole his blessing and birthright from – is waiting for him with 400 men. Jacob’s afraid, and I’m guessing he’s thinking, “Esau is pissed, and he’s coming….with 400 ARMED men.” So Jacob sends his wives and animals and kids….everything including the kitchen sink ahead of him, hoping it calms Esau down. Seeking an advantage. But if you’re Jacob, that’s no sure thing….so he wrestles with God through the night and you have to wonder if Jacob the wrestler is once again trying to wrangle something out of God that will give him yet another advantage in this pickle of a situation he’s facing with Esau.
So why tell you all this today? Here’s the thing: wrestling to gain an advantage on your opponents works well in sports. But in everyday life and relationships? Not so much.
Think about it: such a life of wrestling like this….winning is great, but at what cost? To be always scheming, plotting, devising……to always be suspicious, fearful, threatened……to be constantly on the hustle, looking for the right opportunities to gain that upper hand. To be obsessed with winning, with getting your way, being in control – what does it get you? I guess having wrestled through life like this before, I can tell you: it’s exhausting. It leaves a wake of wreckage behind – ruined relationships and communities; you make enemies; and you suffer some injury yourself. And it’s never-ending; one big vicious cycle where all you’re left with is your need to win in the end.
And like all of his wrestling to this point, this match is never-ending, lasting through the night….and Jacob’s left exhausted and limping. But unlike all of his other matches, the outcome of this one is different: while Jacob’s wrestling with God, he finds God wrestling right back with him. God’s taking hold of Jacob, this opportunist, this advantage-seeker and hustler, this wrestler….and God gives Jacob a gift – the gift of a new name: Israel, God’s chosen.
Most of you know that I’m a wrestler and wrestling coach….32 years of doing both, in fact. And it’s not much of a secret that this is my favorite story in the Bible. I’ve probably given just about every talk and sermon imaginable on it. Yet as I stand here today in front of you, wondering what in the world I could say about it that would matter to you today, let me share this with you: when it comes to wrestling – whether the sport or in life – it’s not the results that matter. If it’s about outcomes, then it indeed becomes all about winning, advantage, and self-righteousness. We’re just a bunch of Jacob’s – opportunists caught in a never-ending wrestling match where we end up bitter, disappointed, paranoid, and broken.
The point of wrestling is the wrestling itself. We wrestle…and we find a God who in return embraces us through it all and reminds us who we are and who we belong to. That is good news. God wrestles back with us, and never lets us go. That is a promise. And it is in this good news and this promise God gives us the greatest gift: resiliency. I had coffee with a good friend the other day, and afterwards she sent me a note saying: “Thank you for the morning chat….you give me food for thought and let me know that I’m not alone in the daily struggles.” Here’s something I’ve learned in my relatively young life: wrestling is simply a part of life; it doesn’t go away. But when we wrestle in this way, with God and with each other, God’s gift of resiliency breaks the cycle of endless wrestling to gain advantages in order to win. Resiliency reminds us the struggle won’t destroy us; resiliency reminds us we’re not alone. Resiliency allows us to trust and love rather than give into our fear and paranoia; our need to control, our need to be right….our need to win.
So for all of you out there today all coming in with struggles of your own, and for the struggles we face as part of the human race and that we face in our little church: wrestle. But not like Jacob….don’t wrestle to win. Wrestle in faith; wrestle in resilient grace and love and wrestle…. as God’s chosen. Amen.