I broke a guy’s finger once. I didn’t mean to. But in middle school we didn’t have a choice but to wrestle. No, I don’t mean in the hallways, it was in gym class. For an entire quarter the P.E. coaches rolled out the mats, taught us a few moves, paired us up, and then blew the whistle. I didn’t really like it. I think it was because of how ridiculous I thought televised wrestling was back then. I grew up when the WWF was in full force. Wrestlemania was everywhere. Hulk Hogan. Andre the Giant. Rowdy Roddy Piper. I tried to like it. Really. But it just all seemed so rehearsed. One big dude came out and and called the other big dude’s mom a bad name and soon thereafter metal chairs and sweaty bodies clothed in spandex began to fly across the ring. Oh yes, and after a referee was punched in the face a few times before finally being thrown out of the ring like a ragdoll, one wrestler finally declared himself to be the “winner” only to be met by the “loser’s” parting words – “Rematch! I want a rematch!” Scream. Pan the camera towards a mullet-wearing, sign-bearing, lettuce tossing crowd of rowdy fans. Cut to commercial. Repeat.
Forgive me. But while most of my friends loved it, I just couldn’t do it. Not my thing. But there was no getting out of gym class wrestling. I wrestled not because I loved it, but because I had to. And unfortunately I was really good at it. The bad thing (for me at least) was that if you were good, you had to wrestle in front of the whole school for a championship match. Maybe I should have just thrown the matches but I couldn’t bring myself to lose on purpose. I was way too competitive for that. Once I stepped out onto the mat all my instincts kicked into survival mode and I fought for my life. And it worked. I went undefeated the whole quarter and, yes, that meant I had to wrestle in the championship match.
I found myself on the mat in front of hundreds of my screaming middle school peers. I wasn’t trying to hurt the guy. I just wanted to survive and not get pinned to the mat in front of the whole school. The whistle sounded and the match began. I survived the first few minutes but then started to fall behind a little on the scoreboard. The clock was ticking down. I knew I had to pin the other guy to win. My survival instincts kicked into full force. All I remember is dropping the other guy down to the mat and trying to roll him over for the pin before the clock expired. I don’t know how but I broke his finger in the process. I felt horrible. The clock expired before I could get the pin and…I lost the match. Total embarrassment. I lost in front of my friends. I lost in front of girls. I lost in front of teachers. I lost in front of the whole school. I had won every match the entire season and now, when pride was on the line, I walked away for the first time as the loser. But I gave it my all. Just ask the poor, broken-fingered guy who beat me. Most importantly, I learned to wrestle whether I wanted to or not.
Part 3 of our story begins with a wrestling match and becomes a key to understanding God’s people and God’s Story. Come with me to the “ring” as we continue our journey between the trees…
Israel. It was a fitting name for God’s people. In Hebrew, “Isra” means “to wrestle with” and “El” is one of the many names for God. Of all the names He could have chosen to call His people this was it. Israel. One who wrestles with God. Not bad considering this name was the result of a divine wrestling match. This match would have made Wrestlemania or the ever popular UFC fighting look like child’s play. According to Genesis 32 it lasted, not a few minutes or a few hours, but all night! And it didn’t end with Jacob calling “Uncle” or a referee declaring a winner but instead with a dislocated hip, a limp, and a forever altered menu for the Jewish nation (see. Gen. 32:32 for this rather humorous detail).
Israel becomes a people with a purpose. Their purpose is to restore what had been lost. Do you remember what exactly had been lost? The tree of Life. And so it’s no coincidence that God calls Israel His olive tree (Jer. 11:16). Why an olive tree? This may seem a strange choice to us but not to the ancient world. The olive tree was highly valued by even a pagan Greek culture. To the Greek goddess Athena, the olive tree was sacred and she is often depicted with an olive branch in her hand. In the Odyssey, Homer calls olive oil “liquid gold.” Hercules find his protection by wearing olive leaves on his head. In the Greek Olympic games, winners received a crown made of olive branches and Roman soldiers were also rewarded with a similar crown for bravery in battle. There was even an ancient Greek law that forbade the cutting down of an olive tree. And so it makes perfect sense that the olive tree is what God declares Israel to be! Israel is to begin the restoring process to redeem a Garden that was lost (see previous blog entry for more on this). God chooses Israel to be His very own people so that the world will see what it was like to live in the Garden and to have a relationship with the Creator of the Universe. They are supposed to be an invitation to life. Much like the original Garden, Israel is a gift to mankind. This great people is to to be a new Garden, a place where a fallen world can find refuge in her sheltering branches, shade in her surrounding leaves, and light from her oil producing olives. Israel was designed with a purpose: to show God to the rest of the world by being the tree it was designed to be. Listen to how God describes their purpose:
“You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” Isa. 49:3
“I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Isa. 49:6
Did you catch the purposes here and how they go together? Israel is to display God’s splendor and as they do that they will naturally be a light to all nations.
Maybe you’ve never thought of it this way, but the first model of discipleship begins here. God calls a people to walk with Him. It’s as if God is saying to Israel, “Follow me.” Sound familiar? God desires for this to be an intimate journey and He desires to have a special relationship with Israel, His beloved people. Listen again to His own description:
“I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you….I will put my dwelling place among you… I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” Leveticus 26:9-12
Do you hear those intimate words? They are an invitation to life. God is saying that His deep desire is take this people and bless them, to form a relationship with them, and to live with them in every facet of their lives. God wants this. He desires this. It was His idea. And it’s bigger than just Israel. This is how God wants to reach out to the entire world! It’s as if God is saying, “The whole world will know Me just by looking at you.” What lessons we could learn from this today. Like Israel, God wants the world to see Him through us.
God does not lead His people from a distance. He leads Israel while living among them. He makes His presence known in their midst. He walks with them much like in the Garden when He walks with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. But this time there is a major difference – a fallen world. Sin is now a part of the picture and to avoid its pitfalls takes discipline…or….you might say discipleship. At the very heart of discipleship is discipline. And to learn to walk with God, we have to enter the wilderness for training. It’s the only way to learn to walk with God. How many times do we say we want to be disciples yet we’re unwilling to enter the wilderness? We say we want to be like Jesus but we’re unwilling to train to be like Jesus. It is a journey of learning to walk with God. And it takes dedication, devotion, discipline, and…time. God doesn’t offer Israel a two week discipleship training class. He doesn’t ask them to read a book on how to be “a better you in seven days.” No. God leads Israel into the wilderness for 40 years. “But they had a long way to go,” you might be thinking. Did you realize that during most of that 40 years, Israel covered a distance of only about 26 miles? Read it again. That’s not a typing mistake. Twenty six miles in forty years. Why? To learn to walk with God. And as they walk with Him, He is a God who cares for them and provides for their needs. When they are hungry, He gives them just what they need as they need it in the form of manna from the heavens. In fact, they never even needed new clothes or sandals!
“During the forty years that I led you through the desert, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet.” Deut. 29:5
This is a God who leads and who cares about every detail of those who follow Him. But in the midst of this intimate journey, Israel stays true to her name. She wrestles with God. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of wrestling match that God had in mind. God wants to challenge His people. He wants to engage them on the “mat.” The way He wrestles with Jacob all night seems to prove that. It’s on the mat that we learn and we are challenged to grow. Ask Jacob. You might say it was that very wrestling match that helped Jacob make the transformation from being a selfish and spoiled brat to one who will in the future be used to describe all of God’s people as Israel, led by the “God of Jacob.” But Israel, as a nation, finds herself no longer seeking to wrestle with God or willing to learn from Him. Instead, she often goes looking for someone else to tangle with. A new partner. A new coach. It happens time and time again from the wilderness right up until captivity.
God tries to teach His people and to correct them. He gives them a Law, not to restrict them, but to show them how to live life the way it was intended to be lived.
“I am the Lord your God who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river…” Isa. 48:17-18
God disciplines His people again and again. But they do not learn.
“In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction.” Jer. 2:30
He desperately sends warnings. Through the prophets He tells what life in another “ring” will be like.
“As you have forsaken Me and served foreign gods in your own land, so now you will serve foreigners in a land not your own.” Jer. 5:19
And finally, God must cut down the olive tree. It reminds me of the lyrics of one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs:
You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down”
– Johnny Cash, God’s Gonna Cut You Down, American V Album
That’s just what God has to do to Israel. A tree that was meant to give life must now be pruned.
“…the Lord’s anger burns against His people; His hand is raised and He strikes them down.” Isa. 5:25
The olive tree falls. Israel is sent into captivity. Echoes of the Garden continue. A chosen people given a special place to live with the Almighty Creator as guide, and it’s all thrown away. Israel. God’s Olive tree. Now nothing more than a stump.
It seems hopeless. The tree of Life in the Garden. Access denied. The olive tree that was meant to restore Garden living. Cut down. The very people that God has chosen to show the world who He is are now slaves to a pagan nation. A stump in a foreign land with foreign gods.
“Yet even in those days,” declares the Lord, “I will not destroy you completely.” Isa. 5:18
Out of that stump, hope will arise. The olive tree will be restored. Listen to the promise.
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Isa. 11:1
Israel, a people who has wrestled with God, has now been brought to her knees. God has pinned her to the mat. Maybe now she is in the perfect place to finally see the God who called her to grow and to produce fruit as a way of showing the world the beauty of life in the Garden. Because in the lowliest of places, a tender shoot, a “netzer,” will emerge and life between the trees will arise.
Netzer is the Hebrew word for “shoot” or “branch.” Netzer’eth…Nazareth. Is it possible? You’ve heard what they say about Nazareth. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)
“Come and see.” (John 1:46) Yes. Come and see. Hope is on the way.