Can I watch football on the Sabbath? Is that an "ok" Sabbath activity? This question is important because in America, millions attend church, but the number that invests time in the NFL is probably 10 times higher.
In the comments section of a recent blog post, I wrote that simply watching football is not in and of itself a good Sabbath activity. I am a huge football fan. There is a part of me that would enjoy watching the 1:00 game, the 4:30 game, the 7:00PM wrap-up show, and then the 8:30PM game. I could be quite happy with pizza, chips, soda, and 12 hours of football. That would be lazy and slothful. That would be self-indulgent. That would be a gorging on junk food and the junk for the mind (endless commercials advertising beer, cars, big screen TV, etc). The advertising, both the products and the tasteless irrelevant methods used to push them, along is enough to say watching that much TV is not Sabbath.
I want to pick up on a really good but unresolved conversation I had with a church member at the backdoor on Sunday after worship. He made the case the Sabbath rest should have a measure of self-indulgence. For him and me, watching football is a relaxing, self-indulgent activity. I was uncomfortable affirming football watching as Sabbath time. Our conversation sort of shifted, and then he said, "I don't get it." He didn't understand the idea of Sabbath. I appreciate his admission. I have to admit that while I think I get it, that is I think I know what Sabbath is supposed to be, I am having trouble consistently keeping Sabbath.
Keep in mind these principles:
(1) Our Sabbath activity should honor God
(2) Our Sabbath-keeping should seek God
(3) Sabbath is a good time to share the Gospel (the starting point for most of Paul's preaching on Jesus was in the Synagogue on Sabbath).
(4) Sabbath should be unique. There should be something about how we keep Sabbath that is only done on Sabbath.
(5) Sabbath should anticipate eternity. We should do things we could imagine doing in Heaven.
(6) Our Sabbath should be done in community whether with one other or 100 others.
(7) Our Sabbath has to include worship (which is usually done when we go to church). It's not only worship, but that is a part of it.
Now, can settling with my favorite snack for a game meet the above criteria? Yes. But I must not neglect my family so I can watch the game. Yesterday, Sunday, the day I take Sabbath, I was reclining watching basketball. My 5-year-old son watched some of the game with me. Then he got bored. Then he got interested again. And bored again. This vacillation happened for a while until finally, I went outside with him and my 2-year-old daughter. We tossed football, wrote on the sidewalk in chalk, and ended up walking to a friends' house. If I had barked at him, "Leave me alone! I am watching the game," I would have missed the whole idea of Sabbath.
So watching should be done in a good spirit, with behavior that honors God.
It should also be communal. Maybe watching the game happens with friends and a meal is a part of the rest. Yes, in that scenario, football would be involved. But it would be a part of the activity with the bigger focus being on rest and relationship. The rest and relationship (and worship) would not be sacrificed for the football, but the football might be diminished in importance for the sake of the relationships. In that scenario, football could certainly be a part of Sabbath.
A month ago, I was fortunate to take my 9-year-old son to a UNC men's basketball game. It was a Sunday evening, and it was a very special time. The day included time with family. He and I visited someone in the hospital. And then capped off the day with the game. Nothing was hurried. No schedule (other than 11AM worship and 7PM opening tip) dictated what we had to do. We have had a serendipitous surprise - the Hospital has an outdoor labrynth. I had not noticed it was finished. After our visit and before the game, we walked the labrynth. Walking labrynths is a very spiritual, meditative activity.
In this post, I am trying not to be too specific. The principles above I have called criteria are not rules. I think the biggest disputes Jesus got into over Sabbath involved the over-imposition of rules. I am not authorized to impose a new set of Sabbath rules and I don't want to be in dispute with my Master. Can we watch football on Sabbath? Depends on how we do it. And that's true of many activities.
Maybe on your Sabbath you go to church, you go to lunch and spend a few wonderful hours with friends and before bed, you engage in special quiet Sabbath prayers. Between your time with friends and your nighttime prayers, you spend 4 intense hours watching football alone, screaming at your TV. Did you keep Sabbath that day? Probably, yes. I think so. Maybe what tells is at the end of that day, are you rested and feeling close to God? Was God honored? We want to be filled with God's presence.
My friend was thinking on Sabbath it is good to be self-indulgent. I think we get more rest and greater blessing if we are God-indulgent. That is, God can do more for us in the way of blessing and rest than we can for ourselves. So God has to be in the center of our Sabbath time whether it is spent watching football, visiting friends for conversation, going on long walks, or in more spiritual activities like praying with lit candles, walking labrynths, and reading classic devotional books.