Summary: When Jacob wrestled with the angel that night at the river, he was a good loser because he was willing to learn from his struggle.

Don’t Be a Sore Loser

Genesis 32:22-31

Proverbs 3:12

August 28, 2005

My first and only foray into the world of coaching came during the summer that I coached my son’s baseball team. We were living in Morocco, Indiana at the time. Morocco is in Newton County and the North Newton High School Baseball team has always been a powerhouse. I’m convinced that one of the reasons is because of the emphasis on youth ball as these kids are coming up. The High School team’s motto is, “We don’t rebuild. We just reload.”

So anyway, I was head coach of a bunch of 9 and 10 year olds. It was a ten game season and, quite frankly, my team stunk. But I was always there to reassure them that we were there to have fun and winning wasn’t the only important thing. The MOST important thing was to have fun.

So we came to the last game of the season. Our record was 0 and 9. It was the bottom of the last inning and we were at bat, trailing one to nothing. With two outs, we had two players on base. We were down toward the bottom of our hitting lineup and it was Jimmy’s turn at bat. Jimmy was a nice kid, but was more at home with a book than a baseball bat. He had glasses as thick as coke bottles and had trouble running to first base without stopping to catch his breath.

Jimmy is up to bat, and I’m excited. I see the possibility to win this game. If I could win my last game, the season wouldn’t be a complete loss. I could hold my head high because my players came through when it counted.

I was pacing up and down in front of the bench, waving my hands, shouting encouragement, telling the kids that this was it, we were going to win. I was psyched.

The first pitch came and Jimmy just stood there. Strike one. “That’s Ok Jimmy,” I cried. “Keep your eye on the ball. Wait for your pitch.”

The second pitch came. Jimmy swung so hard that he fell down. Strike two. “That’s OK Jimmy. That was a good try. When you connect with one, you’re going to hit it out of the park.”

The third pitch came. It was a fastball (after all, what other pitch can a nine year old throw than a fastball) right across the plate. It happened as if in slow motion. I saw Jimmy’s lip curl and his hips begin to lean into the ball. The bat seemed to take two or three seconds to complete the arc that brought it over home plate. And then I heard the sound – “crack” – and the ball sailed over the pitcher’s head.

“Go Jimmy, go,” I shouted from the sidelines. “You can do it. Run! Run! Run! We’re going to win this one! Go Jimmy, go!”

What we had all failed to notice was that Jimmy’s shoe was untied. He took one step toward first base, and fell flat on his face. His glasses were wrenched from his head, skidding out into the baseline dirt. He just sort of laid there, stunned.

The throw was easily made to tag him out. The season was over and my hope for glory only a distant memory. Thanks to me, these kids had to endure a losing season; a season which I sure they still remember even now. I am sure they are telling their own sons about their season that could have been.

Jimmy picked himself up and walked back to the dugout. He had this big grin on his face. I was sitting on the bench just sort of staring into space. He walked over to me, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “That’s OK coach. We’re just here to have fun! And I had a great time!”

This was a great kid and I’m sure that he is now a great dad. If he isn’t a dad yet, he will be a great one when the time comes. He kept things in perspective. He knew what was important in life. He knew how to be a gracious loser.

A couple of weeks ago, Toni and I went to see the movie, “Cinderella Man.” It is a movie in which Russell Crowe plays boxer Jim Braddock who, in the midst of the Depression, beat Max Baer to win the heavyweight championship of the world. The movie portrayed him as a man of integrity who, win or lose, was always a gentleman. He always took everything in stride, always did his best, always held his head high.

That’s a little different from a lot of athletes or coaches nowadays. It seems as though it is getting harder and harder to find a good loser.

Remember the Nike advertisement that ran during the 1996 Olympics which said, “You don’t win silver, you lose gold.” Remember last summer when the Texas Longhorns were beaten by California State at Fullerton in the College World Series of Baseball. The Texas team decided not to attend the ceremonies at which they were to be presented the runner-up trophy. Sore losers if there ever were any.

The year after my coaching debut, I was appointed to a church that sat on about nine and a half acres of land, several acres of which were nothing but weeds. After being there for a couple of years, I decided that we needed a softball diamond. When I went to the Administrative Council with the idea, they informed me that we didn’t have the money. Several people in particular were adamant that we didn’t need a softball diamond at all, and weren’t shy about letting me know that.

When I have a setback like that, I have a tendency to back off a little, rework the idea, and come back from a new angle. So I did some more research and came back to the Administrative Council and told them that I had found a construction company that would let us borrow a bulldozer for a weekend in order to level out the field. I found a farmer who was replacing a fence on his property and would let us have the old fence for free if we just went and picked it up. I enlisted a cadre of men in the church who were willing to spend the time to get this diamond in shape. I asked the Ad. Council if they would give us the go-ahead to put in a ball diamond since it wouldn’t cost the church a dime. They agreed.

I thought that this was a win-win situation. I would get my ball field and the folks who were worried about finances didn’t have to worry about paying for it. My failure of leadership came with my inability to move people out of a win-lose mindset and into the win-win. There were a group of folks who remained adamant about their position and were determined not to be good losers.

The story of Jacob gives us a picture of a man who certainly learned how to be a good loser. When you think about it, this is somewhat surprising from Jacob because, up to this point in his life, he didn’t like to lose at anything.

If you remember his story, you will recall that he was a twin. His brother Esau was actually born first, but when Jacob emerged from his mother’s womb, he had hold of Esau’s heal, a sign that he would challenge for the rights of the first-born. In fact, when they were young men, Esau came in from a day of hunting so hungry that he sold his birth-right as first-born for a bowl of stew that Jacob had been preparing. Later on, when their father was an old man, Jacob tricked him into giving him the blessing that was due to the oldest son.

The brothers hated each other and went their separate ways. Years later, after Jacob had matured, he wanted to make peace with Esau, although he wasn’t sure if Esau would accept him. Jacob was on his way to meet Esau one night when, as he found himself alone, “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” When the fight was over, Jacob realized that he had really gone 15 rounds with God.

From the outset, it is clear that God has taken on human form in his confrontation with Jacob. They wrestled until daybreak with neither one able to gain an advantage over the other. Finally, the man hit Jacob and dislocated his hip socket. But still Jacob was unwilling to let go until he had received a blessing. With the blessing came a name change. No longer would he be called Jacob, but now would be known as Israel, which means “he struggled with God.” He walked away with a limp, but also with the blessing.

The question that is on our minds concerns the rationale God would use to justify this night shift struggle with Jacob. Why in the world was this necessary? Obviously there are a multitude of potential answers to that question, but I would like to offer up one possibility.

Jacob was about to embark on a journey of danger and unknown. He had been estranged from his brother for a long time, and their last encounter ended with Esau vowing to kill him (Genesis 27:41). Now an encounter with Esau was imminent, and perhaps God wanted to see what Jacob was really made of. Was he up to the confrontation? Could he handle it? How would he react when the tough times threatened?

It is hard to get our minds around the concept of God deliberately attacking one of his children. We can’t imagine that. I for one don’t want to believe that God would do that.

But I believe that God knew what was ahead for Jacob. God knew that he was about to embark on a challenge which held the capacity for great danger. Jacob didn’t know how Esau would react when they met. Would he remember his vow to kill? This all night wrestling was a foretaste of the confrontation to come. Jacob needed to be ready. He needed to be prepared.

Remember Proverbs 3:12, “…the Lord reproves the one who he loves.” “The Message” says, “…don’t…resent God’s discipline; don’t sulk under his loving correction. It’s the child he loves that God corrects; a father’s delight is behind all this.” You see, if God didn’t love us, he wouldn’t bother with us.

When God is engaged in the lives of human beings, it is always a gracious involvement. It is gracious because it is always meant to inspire, or instruct, or test, or comfort, or challenge. God doesn’t waste his time wrestling with us just for the heck of it. To go through something with God in anticipation of going through the same thing with others, provides us with unlimited sources of strength and blessing.

I was browsing through the old books at the recent church rummage sale, and found one by the late Evangelical United Brethren and United Methodist Bishop Reuben Mueller. Titled, “His Church” (Nashville: Abingdon Press), it was written in 1966, two years before the merger of the two denominations.

He tells a really funny story about the pastor of Metropolitan Methodist Church in Detroit. It seems as though there was an elderly Quaker lady who attended services at the Methodist Church on a fairly frequent basis because it required two bus changes to get to her own church on the other side of town. As she got older, she attended with more and more frequency.

She came up to the pastor one Sunday following worship and told him that it was very difficult for her to support two churches, and since it was getting harder and harder for her to get to her own church, she would like to join the Methodists. The pastor told her that he would be delighted if she would join.

At that point, she looked up at him and asked, “Do I have to be baptized?” The pastor knew that Methodists, coming from a different strain of Christian theology and faith, believe that baptism is a pre-requisite for church membership, a belief that is not held in common with Quakers. He also saw before him, a sincere, gentle, loving Christian woman.

Pastors get caught sometimes with questions that we don’t expect. Sometimes, on the spur of the moment, we don’t respond very well. This pastor wanted to be true to his pastoral vows and also sensitive to this wonderful elderly lady. Later he said that he remembered something that he learned in school. Every good rule has at least one exception to prove that it is a good rule. So he looked at her and said, “No, you don’t have to be baptized.”

“Well then,” she said, “baptize me!” She wasn’t content until she could have it her own way. She was determined that this would be on her terms…or not at all.

Jacob discovered that night that he couldn’t do things on his terms. It would be God’s terms that would define reality. And in reality, Jacob got whupped. He was able to walk away, but he did so with a limp to remind him that he had been in an encounter with the living God.

He also got a new name…Israel…one who strives with God. Jacob lost that night, but he wasn’t a sore loser. He was a good loser because he knew what we know…that we can count on God to always be involved with us. Our confrontations may not always be pleasant, but they will always be exactly what we need.