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Monday, January 30, 2012

Football and Sabbath

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.


  1. Sounds like a good rationalization for watching sports on the Sabbath.

    Exodus 20:8-11 (NLT)
    8 “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
    9 You have six days each week for your ordinary work,
    10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the LORD your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you.
    11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.

  2. Anonymous, you quoted the scripture, but offered no intrepretation. I don't have any livestock or servants. The foreigners living among me don't do work any days of the week, so Sabbath is no different. In my work as a church pastor, sometimes I do weddings and funerals on Sabbath (if we're counting Saturday as Sabbath). Is that a violation of Ex 20:8-11? What if we call Sunday the Sabbath? It's my main work day. I appreciate the scriptures and do my best to follow them. But what's the point of quoting it? Anyone who reads this blog can read Exodus or Deutoronmy or any other passage. What are your thoughts?

  3. I wasn't criticizing you. I just felt it was rationalizing.

    The Sabbath was binding in Eden, and it has been in force ever since. This fourth commandment begins with the word 'remember,' showing that the Sabbath already existed when God wrote the law on the tables of stone at
    Sinai. How can men claim that this one commandment has been done away with
    when they will admit that the other nine are still binding?

    God said to follow the Sabbath, Jesus said to follow the Sabbath. In the context of scripture watching an NFL game would have been a Sabbath violation.

    The Sabbath is intended to be holy to the Lord. I realize it would take great courage to tell people not to watch an NFL game on the Sabbath. I'm not saying watching the super bowl on Sunday is accepting the mark of the beast or anything. But I do think the Sabbath should not be business as usual.

    1. Yeah, I've been seeking greater clarity on how to keep the Sabbath holy ... but you know what ... I already know when it comes to watching football. I can feel the Spirit tweaking my heart but I keep ignoring it and looking for *SOMETHING* to tell me otherwise!! Something to justify my earthly desire.

      If we think about it, a "servant" is someone who gets paid to work for us. Watching football, generates revenue (through commercials and what not) which ultimately makes its way to the players. It may feel like a stretch, but ultimately, they're hired hands/servants. So watching them play is not asking them to keep the sabbath holy. Even if we don't buy the whole “pro football player -> servant stretch”, we should also ask ourselves can we really be keeping the sabbath holy by watching others work? Kind of like going to a restaurant on Sunday and “resting/keeping Sabbath holy” while others have to work for us. I’m still trying to understand how to factor in works of necessity. I.e. hospitals, they CAN’T just shut down. So, it’s a work of necessity. And not sure how that relates back to a single mom, working minimum wage to just make rent … is that a necessity? Or should “she” be trusting God and just be at home with the family?? Lol I’ll stop there … this could keep spiraling.

      Man ... this absolutely stinks!! WHICH IS ANOTHER PROBLEM AND THE BIGGER ISSUE! My hardened heart about not watching football on Sundays ... even if I do stop watching football on Sundays, if my heart isn't in the right place and driving the reason why I stopped then it's just another “work”. God wants my heart not my works. *Sigh* :) So, off I go to work on my desire/heart to obey. Peace brothers. And pray for me!

    2. I wrote this blog 3.5 years ago. I confess I have not gotten better at keeping Sabbath. Not at all. In a couple of years, I will go on Sabbatical. But in the daily rhythm of life, I fail to observe any type of Sabbath.

  4. I appreciate what's being said here and I agree that Sabbath was instituted at the outset, the very original creation. But I think there needs to be more than identifying what is a violation. It is good to know what we should not do. But then, what is good Sabbath activity. "Remember" - yes! So, how do we remember? A worship service? I think so. A meal that include special prayers. Yes, I think that helps remembering. Time spent with people? I think Sabbath is to be communal. The commandments were given by Moses to all the people and written down for the community and to be kept in context of community.

    Can a Sunday be centered around watching football - I don't think so. Can football be a part of people gathering, after they have worshipped and prayed? If the behavior is God-honoring and there are other markers distinguishing that this is special, this is Sabbath, then I am not sure that it is a violation.

    Might I be wrong? Sure. If so, then I am dependent on grace.

    I really do appreciate your willingness to expand on your comments. In theological and spiritual and scriptural discussions, every side usually says theirs is the Biblical perspective. That's why I insist on anyone who quotes scripture to lay out their understanding of it. I want to understand what's being said. I think you did that. I am not sure I agree that watching a football game is a Sabbath violation, but I see why you say that it is. I appreciate your point. Thanks for commenting. Discussion is always welcome.

  5. What should we do then on the Sabbath?
    1 Keep the Sabbath day holy.
    2. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day,
    3. but enjoy the Sabbath
    4. and speak of it with delight as the LORD’s holy day.
    5. Honor the Sabbath in everything you do on that day,
    6. and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly.

    Ref: Isaiah 58:13 (NLT)

    1. Several difficulties with this. First, the Sabbath is Saturday. It is not some day we choose. So we cut out just about all youth sports. And that's only the beginning of the commitments that arise on Saturday. Most of my Saturdays have some commitment or obligation. To cut all these out would result in non-participation in much of life. You can make the case for that.

      But I wonder this. Did the gentile believers in the New Testament keep Sabbath? I don't think we have answer for that.

      A second difficulty is numbers 2 & 3. "Don't pursue your interests," but "enjoy the Sabbath." To me that is a contradiction. Again, I understand the basis for what is being said. But in actual practice, I would find this very, very difficult. And the difficulty flies in the face of the idea that Sabbath is rest.

      So, I see your points, but don't find them helpful in trying to create space for Sabbath in my life.

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