Sports and the Sabbath

By Bob Hiller

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The title of today’s blog might prompt you to think that I am going to write something about the woes of having too many sports on Sunday. Every pastor, it would seem, has entered into a war with some Sunday morning sports league. Parents must weigh whether the guilt trip they receive from their pastor will outweigh the guilt trip they’ll receive from their kids for a late arrival to the game. And, so, you are probably expecting me to write some new law on how to get parents and kids to go to church. Or, perhaps you think I am going to write about how awful it is that the NFL has taken Sunday captive, and football is our new idolatry. Perhaps you think I will demonize sports for having taken over the Sabbath!

Well, I’m not going to do any of that. Perhaps I will get at neglecting the Word for leisure at some other time. Actually, I am becoming more and more convinced that sports can help us properly enjoy our “Sabbath” time. Sports, after all, can take us into a place of blessed non-production. They allow us to stop our constant busyness and incessant activity by giving us something to simply enjoy for its own sake. This is a good thing.

I know we Lutherans have a healthy aversion to Sabbath talk. That’s okay, so did Jesus. And St. Paul. It strikes me, however, that they were moving against a sort of Pharisaical Sabbath that sought to impress God with inactivity and in the process ended up oppressing the neighbor. Jesus and Paul were against a legalistic use of the Sabbath which was seen a means of gaining righteousness. Such a misuse of the law always ends up causing one’s neighbor to suffer. That is not the Sabbath I am after. I am after Sabbath time that refocuses us on God’s creative and gracious activity, hears His Word, receives His blessings, and enjoys His creation with my neighbor.

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We treat time as a commodity, something we use for our own ends. We even use economic language to describe our usage of time: we “spend” time or we “waste” it. We are trained to think that our time should only be spent working to gain more, to produce more, to get ahead. We must “use” our time wisely. Every second counts for something. We all know the most successful people are people who drain the life out of every second of every day.

But, if we are to believe the Genesis account of creation (which I do), then we see time not as a commodity for us to leverage in our favor, but, like the rest of creation, a gift to be received. Time is God’s creation, something He made and placed us into, not to be used for our ends, but to be enjoyed for His glory. The problem is we don’t enjoy time in the creation, because we are too busy spending our time figuring out ways to manipulate the creation for our ends. This has led me to believe that we are in need of a recovery of Sabbath time.

Sabbath time is not an excuse for laziness, but a time in which we simply stop working to hear God’s Word and enjoy His creation for no other reason than to just take part in something beautiful. Sabbath, we could say, is a time of holy non-production. It is time not spent, but received. It is time in church, where we do nothing but listen and sing, take and eat. It is time, having been attended to and sanctified by the Word, in which we enjoy playing in God’s creation. Having been freed by the absolving Word of our God, who claims sovereignty and control over all things, we are able to enjoy those things without fear of ruining that which He has given. A Lutheran theology that believes all of life is a gift “apart from any merit or worthiness of my own” (that’s First Article language for you Catechism fans) and we can actually receive this time to cease from work and play for a bit. Sabbath rest is an act of confession: We believe in God’s sovereign grace.

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And here is where watching sports can be beneficial for our Sabbath disciplines. When I watch a game I like to sit down, relax, have a beer with a friend or two, and yell at the game. It’s not what many would consider a good “use” of time. The time is not especially “productive.” It is, however, time in which I can be reminded that three hours of inactivity isn’t going to send the world into a tailspin. I’m not nearly as important the globe’s revolution as I think I might be. God graciously maintains control so I can stop from work and worry and enjoy something beautiful.

Watching sports draws us out of our self-important bubbles and focuses us on God’s good creation. But, of course, sports are by no means the only gifts that can give such blessed leisure. Good literature, good art, or good entertainment are given to help us engage in this sort of Sabbath-pattern. As children of the all-sovereign, all-gracious Father, we are free for a discipline of temporary inactivity wherein we simply enjoy all that is sanctified by the Word. It is good to enjoy the time God has given us to revel in the beauty of His creation simply for its own sake. There is something right about getting lost in the pages of a novel. It is a beautiful thing to sit down and enjoy a ball game simply for the sake of enjoying a ball game. There is something nearly zen-like that happens wandering through a museum. By ceasing from work to enjoy the creation, you may not be making the world a better place, but you will be participating in the goodness God has created all around you. He has certainly given you time for that!

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