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Playing basketball on the Sabbath

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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An outdoor basketball goal net set against sunset tinged clouds in Vicksburg Mississippi (Credit: prettybea via en.wikipedia.org)

Should Jewish athletes be required to compete on the Sabbath?  Does playing sports violate the biblical day of rest?  What is the role of a Sabbath in our 24/7 culture?

Robert M. Beren Academy is an Orthodox Jewish high school in Houston.  Their basketball team has advanced to the state semifinals and was scheduled to play The Covenant School of Dallas at 9 PM local time tonight.  However, the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown Friday and continues to sundown Saturday.  Beren’s team does not play during the Sabbath, so the school appealed to the league to move their game time.  League officials refused, citing rules that prohibit such schedule changes.

As of last Tuesday, Beren’s season was over, despite objections from Houston’s mayor and a national groundswell of support for the team.  Jeff Van Gundy, the former coach of the Houston Rockets, criticized the league’s decision: “The only thing you should worry about is doing right by the kids.  This decision has nothing to do with the kids.”  Then parents of players on the team filed a lawsuit.  Yesterday afternoon, Beren was granted a temporary restraining order that will allow their team to play today at 2 PM.  If they win, they’ll start their championship game no earlier than 8 PM on Saturday.

This controversy raises a larger issue: what is the role of the biblical Sabbath today?

Scripture requires us to “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8).  This was our Saturday–Sunday became holy to Christians after the resurrection (cf. Revelation 1:10), but was not observed by Jewish Christians as a Sabbath.  To me, the larger significance of Sabbath is the importance of setting aside a day for worship and renewal.  The One who made us knows that we need such a day.  Those who keep a Sabbath must pay a price in today’s secular culture, but the reward is worth its cost.

Today’s Lenten “fear not” highlights this decision, as Jesus tells us, “do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4).  Instead, we should fear God above all others (v. 5).  I admire businesses which make the financial sacrifice to close on Sunday so their employees can have a day for rest and worship.  I also admire families who choose Sunday worship over athletic activities.  These parents are teaching their children the priority of their relationship with their Father.

The late John R. W. Stott was an Anglican minister and leader of the global evangelical movement.  His writings contain a depth of wisdom and relevance few scholars have matched.  His secret?  He said that he needed an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year to be alone with God.  If he needed a Sabbath, how much more do we?

The purpose of Lent is to focus on spiritual renewal.  When last did you give God a day?