Sermon on Isaiah 58:13-14 – “Sports on Sunday?”

Sermon on Isaiah 58:13-14 – “Sports on Sunday?”

Sermon for Sunday Evening, February 4th, 2024 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Sermon Text

[Isa 58:13-14 ESV] 13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; 14 then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”


I’m starting a series this evening, which Lord Willing, will go for a number of weeks. It intends to be a series of topical messages on “Living in these times.” The hope is to Biblically address some of the difficulties we find in our lives.

Next Sunday evening is the Super Bowl. So it makes for a good opportunity to discuss “Sports on Sunday.”

Topical sermons can be more difficult for a pastor to arrange and more difficult for the congregation to follow. Especially it can be difficult to apply Biblical wisdom to our lives in a way that is satisfying our understanding as individual Christians.

There are some churches and pastors that don’t emphasize the observance of the Sabbath at all, besides of course encouraging attendance at the worship service itself. Such churches and pastors wouldn’t think anything of you regularly going to a restaurant after church or taking your kids to a sports practice or game.

They know that the commandment says:

[Exo 20:9-10b ESV] 9 “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work”

But the full understanding and observance of the Sabbath is more than just “not working.”

The Sabbath is to be a day holy to the Lord. The Lord commands [Exo 20:8 ESV] 8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

I think it will do us well to recount some history before we look into the question of “Sports on Sunday.”

I. History

From the earliest years of the Presbyterian Church, going back to Scotland, we find a commitment to Sabbath Observance. Included in their commitment was not only the idea of “not working” and of attending worship services, but the whole day was to be holy to the Lord. In addition to eschewing work, the Presbyterians avoided “recreations.”

The Presbyterians, however, were not the only Christians in Great Britain. There were other “dissenters” like the congregationalists and baptists. And the largest church, or the one that was in control, was the Anglican church, led by King James I.

You have, no doubt, heard of King James. He was the one who sponsored the translation of the Bible into English. That is the King James Bible. Ironically, many of the theological views which King James held would be opposed by those today who advocate for the exclusive use of the King James Bible. One such view is King James’ view of the Sabbath.

King James didn’t like the fact the Presbyterians (and Puritans) were so strict about observing the Sabbath. Nor did he like the fact that many of his Roman Catholics subjects didn’t attend church at all. So in one fell swoop he went after both Presbyterians and Catholics when he had published “A Declaration of Sports.” This declaration was commonly called “The Book of Sports,” and it outlined acceptable and unacceptable recreations for Sunday. This was against the Presbyterians because they argued that there are no acceptable recreations on Sunday. And it was against the Roman Catholics because the King allowed people to participate in such Sports only AFTER they went to church.

So what did the King say?

He said that on Sundays you may participate in archery, dancing, leaping, vaulting, and other “such harmless recreation.” But you may not participate in bear-baiting or bowling. Such activities are “right out” as Monty Python would say.

Well, the King’s pronouncement didn’t do much to change the view of the Presbyterians. Why? Because they looked to the Bible and not to the King for direction.

And what does the Bible say. We read in our text for the sermon that God declares the Sabbath day “a delight and holy day of the Lord.” And twice the Lord says that on it we are not to “seek your own pleasure.”

So the Presbyterians retained their view of Sabbath observance. And they codified when they adopted the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

First there is question 60 in the Shorter Catechism:

Q. 60. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified?
A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.

And then question 117 in the Larger Catechism.

Q. 17. How is the sabbath or the Lord’s day to be sanctified?
A. The sabbath or Lord’s day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy) in the public and private exercises of God’s worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose, and seasonably to despatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.

There are numerous points to consider on the “doctrine of Sabbath” but the focus today is on this point that we are to refrain from work and even “recreations” on that day.

The fact that we are not to work on Sunday (unless of necessity or acts of mercy) is generally understood by Christians, even if not usually followed through with. In the Old Testament text regarding the sabbath there is first that clear statement that “you shall not do any work.” (Exodus 20:9). Some examples of this prohibition are giving in other places. The people were not to gather manna on the sabbath. (Exodus 16:25-28). There was to be no treading of winepresses or selling food (Nehemiah 13:15-16), or carrying a heavy load (Jeremiah 17:21).

The idea that we are not to participate in “recreations” on the Sabbath is not very well known in our day. On hearing this idea many Christians would instantly revolt against it. And while the Scriptures aren’t as explicit on this point as they are on the point against work on the Sabbath, there are at least two reasons why this anti-recreation doctrine is correct. [REPEAT: two reasons why this anti-recreation on the sabbath doctrine is correct]

The first is from out text saying that on the Sabbath we are not to “seek our own pleasure.” And the second is the repeated Biblical teaching that the Sabbath is a day “holy unto the Lord.”

II. Pleasure Seeking on the Sabbath

First, from our text, we find that God is calling people to TURN BACK from “doing your pleasure on my holy day.” You are not to “go your own way” or “seek your own pleasure.”

The contrast of course it that the Sabbath is God’s day. He says “MY holy day.”

On six days we are to labor. And, as the catechism says, or implies, there are acceptable employments and recreations on those days. We may, so long as they are morally acceptable, take pleasure in varios recreations on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Football, bowling, hunting, board games, television, and yes, even watching golf (if indeed people find that a pleasure, regardless of my aversion to it)

So we can exegetically, from the Scriptures, from the very Word of God see that we are not to do our own pleasure on His holy day. And when we know what “His Pleasure” is, we know that it rules out recreations, it rules out sports.

III. Holy Unto the Lord

So, let us look at the second reason why the anti-recreation doctrine is correct. It is because the Sabbath is to be Holy Unto the Lord.

In the commandments, not only does it say “on it you shall not do any work,” but it says “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” That is actually the commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The rest is an explanation. And it has the longest explanation of any of the commandments. “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

That same idea – the holiness of the Sabbath, its “separateness” as a day unto the Lord, — is in our text as it calls the Sabbath “the holy day of the Lord.”

IV. What are we to do?

What are we to do? How then shall we live?

King James wanted his subjects to go to church first and then, perhaps as a reward for obedience, he allow the rest of the day to be yours to do as you pleas. Just no bear-baiting and bowling.

But what is the Christian’s reward? It is God himself.

And who’s day is the Sabbath? It is the Lord’s day. A day holy unto the Lord. It is not for us to decide what to do for “our pleasures” but for us to take pleasure in the Lord. To Remember the Sabbath.

Well, rather than focus this sermon on criticizing the current Sunday routine that you or I or anyone else holds, or criticizing the NFL and other sports leagues for playing games on Sunday (among their various other sins), I want to look at the great glory that it is to truly REST on the sabbath. Rather than analyzing the exceptions and difficulties of Sabbath observance, I want to encourage a goal that we all can earnestly strive for and benefit from.

That goal is for the Sabbath to be “a delight” as we “delight in the Lord.”

How do we do this? How do we delight in the Lord?

It is our prerogative. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

On Sunday, as we take our rest from work and all things for world, just as the New Testament Christians did, we come together for worship.

Acts 20:7 tells us “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread.”

This breaking of bread is, without a doubt, the coming together to remember the Lord with holy communion. Just as God said “Remember the Sabbath day,” Christ said with the taking of the elements of communion , “Do this in remembrance of me.”

This is a day we remember the Lord and take delight in Him, meeting together to celebrate God’s creating of the world and subsequent resting, and to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the very Word of God who was in the beginning God and who was with God and who spoke all things into being at creation.

It is to be, and it is, a great joy that we remember the Lord on this day.

The great teaching of Christ is that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

It is good for you to rest. It is good for you to delight in the Lord. You should see this day as a blessing from God, not a burden that keeps you back from “better things.”

So here is a suggestion of what your activities for the day might look like.

Wake up

And go to church.

We have Sunday School first.

Then worship service.

Sometimes we have a fellowship meal.

And it is good and right to talk with others after the service. It is best not to conduct business at that time, but to ask how others are doing and to encourage them in the Lord.

After lunch you might take a nap.

You might go for a walk. Even those tough ministers who wrote the Westminster Standards understand that some physical activity might be necessary on Sunday to help you focus on resting in the Lord. And I’d say especially for children.

Children naturally, when given the “rest” of free time are going to play. As adults sit in fellowship talking with one another or spend their time reading or in some other restful way, so children will play. And I don’t think we can take the “recreation” clause of the confession to prevent all forms of kids playing on Sunday. But we should avoid participating in competitive league sports that take people way from their families and require someone (a referee perhaps) to work on the Lord’s day.

Now, here is where I want to challenge all of us, myself included. Let us seek a time on Sunday where we come together in our families or by ourselves and read an entire book of the Scripture. Wouldn’t that be a great habit? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful help to keep us delighting in the Lord?

Then, we have evening service at 5 PM. And I hope you see how this fits in with the Presbyterian (and Scriptural) vision for what the Sabbath should look like. A day, a whole day, holy unto the Lord. This doesn’t necessitate that we have 2 services, or 3 or 7, but it helps us indeed to have a second service to keep bookends on this day of the Lord.

As for activities during the day, this is where I grant it may be difficult to determine the best course. If there are things which must necessarily be done (like milking the cows, or putting a log in the fireplace) then by all means do it. And if there are acts of mercy that needs be done (like providing accommodation for a traveler, or having a phone conversation with a friend in need) by all means do so.

V. Legalism Refuted

Taking this position on the importance of Sabbath observance will almost always bring charges of “legalism.”

But this is not legalism.

First, we have to understand what LEGALISM is.

Legalism isn’t a bunch of a rules. That’s how many commonly think of it. If you put a lot of rules on your church on your family, people will say you are a legalist. Sometimes having even a single rule will cause other to call you a legalist. Having too many laws or enforcing them harshly might not be a good thing, but technically that is not legalism. Legalism is the idea that obeying the law leads to salvation.

And salvation is by God’s Grace Alone, not by how well you observe the Sabbath. So this is not legalism.

But it is too many rules? Is it to much to say “avoid sports on Sundays,” “avoid entertainments on Sundays?”

The Christian is indeed free. We don’t have to follow the detailed ceremonial laws of the Old Testament or the dietary restrictions that it specifies. Christ has fulfilled the law. But the moral law of God STANDS. We are not given the freedom to kill. We are not given the freedom to steal, or commit adultery, or bear false witness. And we are not given the “freedom” to abandon our remembrance of and keeping holy the Sabbath day.

We are FREE TO remember the Sabbath. We are to view it as a great blessing, recognizing that THIS IS GOOD FOR US. It is good for us to take a break, not only from work but from entertainment. Especially in this world. We hear often about people being “over worked.” That is often true. But more often, we are “over entertained.” Entertainment, which used to be an occasional thing in life, is now all of life for some people. But the bright lights, the advertisements, the “wardrobe malfunctions,” and the political aggravations (and the National Football League is very political) should lead us to say, “I need a break.”

And the Lord has provided us with that break. We do well to take it. The Sabbath was made for us. So let us use the Sabbath for what we truly need and is our greatest good; a restful enjoyment of God.