Tag Archives: wrestling

Run for the Prize

I preached this message as the Olympics were about to get underway.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (NIV)

24  Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  25  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  26  Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.  27  No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.


     In September 1988, I was a brand new Resident Assistant on the fourth floor of Scranton Hall at Edinboro University. I had been hired three weeks into the semester, so most of the guys on my wing had had their first three weeks without any direct supervision… and liked it. And most of them were freshmen… And almost all of them were new recruits for Edinboro’s wrestling team. And they didn’t like having an R.A. move in and spoil their fun.

     What made matters worse was the Olympic games, held late that year in September instead of July. And NBC was covering the games LIVE, from Seoul, Korea, which meant that a lot of the events were between 1:00 and 4:00 a.m. 

     Well, this group of guys was pretty rambunctious, even before the Olympics started. But from the day the games opened, every night was a test of my abilities as an R.A. But the night that their Assistant Coach, Bruce Baumgartner, wrestled, was the absolute worst.  Those boys were so pumped up waiting for Bruce to wrestle that they simply HAD TO run up and down the halls knocking on people’s doors.  They simply HAD TO yell and scream and make whistling sounds and animal noises. They HAD TO. They couldn’t help it.

     Well, maybe they didn’t really have to, but they thought they did. I ended up spending a couple hours in the hallway outside my door sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, reading a book (as much as I could).  And they were able to control themselves after that. They just needed a visible reminder (me).

     Finally, when Bruce did wrestle I was with them watching the TV just as intently as any of them. We watched him compete and we watched him win gold.  It was a wonderful night.

     But I also remember that throughout that semester, I noticed that one of the wrestlers, named Louie, seemed to be a little bit more laid back, a little more mature than the others. He had his moments like the rest, but seemed to be the most serious and watched his prescribed routine more. He was more focused. More intent.

     And in 1996, it was Louie… American wrsetler Lou Rosselli, that I saw on the television set wrestling in the Atlanta Olympics. He, not any of those other guys, made it to compete. He didn’t win the gold, because in one of his victories his arm was broken in three places. (It took a LOT to stop him!) But Lou had determined long ago that he would be serious about his wrestling… and it made a difference even outside of the gym.

     In fact, I just read that that very same Lou Rosselli, now a coach with the Ohio State Buckeyes, is currently is taking a few weeks to serve as a volunteer Olympic Coach for men’s freestyle wrestling with the United States Olympic wrestling team in London right now.

     It reminds me a lot about the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9 where he talks about the Corinthian games of his day.

     You see, the Olympic games that we now celebrate started in 1896, but their history goes back to ancient Greece, over 700 years before Christ. There were the Olympian games, the Pythian games, the Nemean games, and the Isthmian games. Each one rather similar, except that each was held in a different city, every four years. The Isthmian games, held on the isthmus of Greece, were based in Corinth, and were still being held when Paul visited Corinth and later wrote his two letters to the Corinthians.

     Paul likens the Christian walk, the Christians’ life, with these games, in three different ways. Paul starts off in verse 24 and 25 with:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  

     He likens the Christian walk to the footraces they would have been so familiar with, and then draws a contrast.  He says that all who are in the race are runners.  Everyone wants the prize, but in the footraces, only one gets the reward at the end. But in the Christian life all who finish the course can have the reward, the prize, at the end of the race.

     The ancient Greeks competed for a crown…made of greenery. The Olympian athletes struggled in order to win a crown made of wild olive, the Pythian athletes–a crown of laurel, the Nemean competitors–a crown made of parsley, and the Isthmians, here in Corinth, ran for a crown made out of pine. And every one of those prizes started to wilt the moment they were cut from their respective plant, before they even made it to the winner’s head!

     Paul then highlights that we strive for a crown that will never fade: eternal life and spending eternity with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. How much more important that we do what is needed to win our race.

     The second comparison Paul makes between our daily walk as a Christian and the Greek athletic games is found in the beginning of verse 25:

“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.”

    The King James version says the athletes are “temperate” in all things. The New Revised Standard Version says they use “self-control.”

    Those ancient competitors disciplined themselves before they could compete. There were no coaches back then, only teachers. And those Greek teachers prescribed to their students, their disciples as it were, what kind of food they could eat and how much as well, the hours they would exercise and when they were to sleep, and forbade them from alcohol and women.

     So Paul makes self-discipline his second point. If we are to successfully win our race, our contest against sin, then we must, as disciples of our teacher, stick to his instructions of what we need to do. Christ said, “Deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.” Yet how many of us don’t deny ourselves and give into every whim or craving our physical body has, at the expense of our soul?

     The ancient Greeks were willing to suffer all of these hardships knowing that almost everyone that competed would come away without the prize. But it was worth it if they had a chance at being the winner.  And that was all for a bunch of leaves!

     In verses 26 and 27, Paul gets to his third point in his comparison:

Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.  No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

     Paul stresses again the need for the spiritual man within, the “inner man” if you will, to be the victor over our physical body. And he goes to boxing and wrestling for his comparisons this time.

     He says he beats his body and makes it his slave. The Greek words here tell the story:

     One Greek word, comparing to boxing, means “to hit in the eyes” and the other greek word signifies tripping the opponent so that he falls down and then keeping him down, obliging him to acknowledge himself conquered… and thus making him your slave.

     Paul has packed a whallop here. In our wrestling match against sin, against the urges and cravings of our physical body, we don’t wrestle just for fun. Rather, we wrestle for dominance, for mastery, to determine who will be the slave.

     In the ancient games, the herald announced who the competitors were, announced the conditions and rules of the games, displayed the prizes, exhorted the competitors, encouraged the spectators, pronounced the names of the victors, and put the crown on their head.

     But one of the most important jobs of the herald was to put his hand on the head of each would be athlete, before the competition, and walk around the inside of the stadium asking: “Who can accuse this man?” Because criminals were not allowed to compete, servants and debtors were not allowed to compete, and, most of all, slaves were not allowed to compete.

     Paul sees the Greek games as the perfect comparison with our Christian struggle, our Christian walk. First, we all must be runners. You can’t win the race if you are not entered in the race. Second, there are preparations for the contest that must be made. Christ spoke of it as denying ourselves and bearing the cross. And third, and most important of all, we must make sure that we are not a slave to anything.

      The questions today, from our coach, are these: Are we entered into the race?  If Jesus Christ does not live in your heart as Lord and Savior, then your stuck on the sidelines and will NEVER receive the prize of eternal life.  Are we following the coach’s advice in training? Do we deny ourselves and take up our cross? And, when we are in the midst of the battle, who is a slave to whom? Is our physical body a slave to our spiritual body… or is our spiritual body a slave to our physical body? Who calls the shots…physical or spiritual?

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, sermons

Thoughts about Grappling With God

In early July I was looking ahead at the lectionary readings for August and was struck by the Old Testament readings. In particular, the August 3rd reading from Genesis 32:22-32 about Jacob wrestling. I knew that I knew I just had to preach this passage. And that God wanted to speak to me as well. (Actually, most of my preaching has been whatever God has been speaking to me from a text and the congregation just gets to listen in.)

With Mom getting sick, and then dying, I wasn’t around for a Sunday morning until today… and I still felt I was supposed to preach that text. For lack of a super catchy title, I simply called it “God Grappler.”

Even though I had an outline, what follows are more my notes, or perhaps reflections, from this morning.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

GENESIS 32:22-32

Jacob remembers how badly he had treated his brother Esau and gets worried when God sends messengers (angels!) to alert him that Esau is heading towards him. Jacob got really serious about needing to do some soul searching and seeking God for some help and I notice that Jacob starts clearing out any distractions… He makes arrangements for his kids (11 boys) and his wives (2 actual wives and 2 ‘significant others’) and all of his stuff and servants to be in two different places. The text seems clear that he’s trying to ‘cut his losses’ in case the worst happens and Esau actually attacks. But I remember Jesus talking about separating yourself away from others and ‘getting alone’ in order to seek out God. Isn’t that where the idea of a prayer closet comes from?

So Jacob is alone… verses 9 through 12 talk of Jacob actually praying and asking God for help. No repentence is explicitly cited, but there’s a definite seeking God! Little wonder that God shows up later in the story!

Verse 24 says that “a man” wrestled with him till daybreak. Verse 26 seems to hint that this is a human form of God and when the man renames Jacob, his rationale is “because you have struggled with God and with men…” Jacob, in verse 30, names the place Peniel “because I have seen God face to face and yet my life was spared.” Hosea 12:3-4 says in one verse it was God and in the other that it was an angel.

In several other places throughout Scripture we read of God appearing in human form and being referred to as ‘The Angel of the Lord’ so I guess I don’t see this as much of a problem… It appears to me that this is simply a pre-incarnation theophany of Jesus. And if so, it would make sense that Jesus would not want Jacob to see him in the light and then find out that he had wrestled with God because it would have decimated Jacob’s understanding that to see God is to die. So to have encountered God face to face in the dark would do the work in Jacob’s life that God was after without completely undoing him. (Perhaps sort of like today’s cliche that God will only allow as much as you can handle.)

So, ‘the man’ says let me go because it’s almost morning… The response Jacob gives is, not surprisingly, ‘NO, not without your blessing!’

I struggled with this for a while, but then, reflecting back on that Hosea passage again I realized that even from the womb, this guy has been trying to carve out a place for himself… He grabbed his brother’s heel, he manipulated and schemed to get his brother to trade away the birthright, he tricked Isaac into bestowing Esau’s blessing on him instead… and then all of the back and forth scheming between his uncle Laban and he in the ancient ancestral homeland. I think there’s evidence here that this guy has a deeper unmet hunger for MORE than just the physical things like wives and herds and property. His hunger is for the blessings, the birthrights, the ‘spiritual’ dimensions of life. And he has tried to get that hunger met through his own scheming and manipulation.

Even when he encounters God as he flees from Esau, and we read the whole ‘Jacob’s ladder’ narrative, Jacob tries to make a deal with God. IF you bring me back… THEN I will serve you… It sounds to me like He wants the blessings and gifts of God without having to commit to a relationship with Him.

Twenty years pass and he’s met someone who’s given him a run for his money in the lying and manipulating end of things. He barely gets out of that encounter with Laban in one piece.

Now he’s here about to meet Esau. He’s scared. He’s invoked God Himself to come and intervene. And I believe God listens and answers… but not necessarily in the way Jacob had hoped or wanted. Instead of physical deliverance (which he DOES get later) from his brother, he gets a physical AND a spiritual intervention.

In verse 26 Jacob is still just trying to ‘wrestle’ a blessing out of this one who has engaged him in this struggle. The ‘man’ asks about his name and offers him a new one… ‘One who has struggled with God and with men’ and something CLICKS in Jacob’s head… He knows of MANY times when he’s struggled with men… but ‘when have I struggled with God?’ And I can see the lightbulb coming on and realizing this must be more than just some ‘man’ that he is struggling with now…

And Jacob does something he hasn’t done before. He asks this ‘man’ what his name is. He’s always wanted the things of God… but now he wants to KNOW more about this God Himself. And the Bible says THEN the mysterious wrestler gives Jacob his blessing.

It took the struggle to get Jacob where he needed to be to let go of his scheming ways and finally seek God. Many struggles with Esau and then Isaac, Laban, and now this ‘traveler unknown’ as Charles Wesley would word it in the 1700’s.

SO… how are we like Jacob now-a-days?

I see LOTS of signs of spiritual hunger… spirituality in our marketplace, our businesses, our boardrooms, our televisions, our movies, and even in our children’s literature. We want there to be more than just the physical reality. We want spiritual truths and spiritual realities. So Goosebumps books, and Harry Potter, and demonic horror movies, and even Disney shows, all try to capture us and enthrall us with the premise that there is some spiritual truth beyond what we see in the physical.

Like Jacob, we want a piece of that reality… but also like Jacob we have a past filled with unrepented sin and a desire to have the spiritual without getting to know the true God of the spiritual reality. And so we walk away from all those other spiritual things, still ‘hungry.’ Like Jacob, we’re still looking for the right ‘blessing’ even after we’ve gotten everything we’ve tried to lay our hands on.

I believe the answer comes with Jesus’ wprds in the Sermon on the Mount, when he admonished his listeners to “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)

It’s the act of asking and seeking and knocking and wrestling and struggling with God that defines us and strengthens us and matures us into who God wants us to be.

I think of the times I play hide and seek with my four year old son Josh… I may hide, but I WANT him to find me! I want him to SEEK me! Because the joy and excitement comes even more forcefully when he FINDS me!

Jacob never got the blessing he was looking for until he got past the ‘give me’ stage and grew into the ‘What is your name?’ stage. When he actually wanted to know this God… then the blessing came unasked for.

Jesus said that’s how it is for us, too: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

One of Jacob’s later descendants, Jeremiah the prophet, would write God’s prophetic words on this subject this way to Jacob’s distant grandchildren who were about to face another defining struggle: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you…” (Jeremiah 29:13-14a)

The Bible is supposed to be like a mirror… we ought to be able to see how we look by seeing ourselves in the mirror… and in the Bible. How do we find ourselves in Jacob’s wrestling story? Where do we fit in? And how do we now respond?

One more thought… From that point on, Jacob, or now “Israel,” was known by his limp… His wounding helped define who he was and helped people to know it was really him. Somewimes we have have been wounded or hurt, but yet found a blessing hidden in the midst of the pain… an unexpected positive in the midst of a whole slew of negatives… Perhaps, we carry the wound with us to remind us of how God can, and did, work in the middle of that difficult time. After all, even Jesus was ‘known by his scars.’

What are our scars? Have we struggled long enough to keep at it, until we get to know God Himself in the midst of the struggle?

Or do we settle for whatever happens to tickle the spititual hunger and never seek HIM?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized