Not long ago, myself and another gentleman were discussing our youthful days when we were much more carefree than we are today. We recalled our times in youth sports programs. For myself, I played Little League baseball. I was an OK player but played a couple of seasons in the “instructional” league, where our uniforms consisted of silk screened T-shirts and jeans, before making it to the level when we got uniforms with shirts, pants, and matching socks (when you had the matching socks…you made it). But one of the things we remembered was having our games in the evenings Monday through Thursday. Friday was always open, and our make-up games were on Saturday, if needed. Today, as I drive by a Little League field on the way to church on a Sunday morning, there are kids practicing!
Call me silly, but I think Sunday is a church day and a family day. I have golf tournaments that I pass on because they are two-day tournaments held on Saturday (OK) and Sunday (not OK). Sunday is the only day during the week I won’t play golf. In fact, I rarely leave home on a Sunday, and if I do, it’s usually with the whole family. Then, it’s back to church in the evening. I can’t imagine having children involved in youth sports and having to debate with myself skipping church for a baseball practice or not. If you’re not there yet, do yourself a favor and determine in your mind and heart now that any involvement with sports on Sunday, for you or your children, will take place only after church and not instead of church. Instill in your youngster early that God and church have the priority.
I read a story not too long ago about a young boy, a son, growing up in a pastor’s home. He wanted to become involved in wrestling. The problem was that wrestling had a portion of the commitment on Wednesday night, the same night as the weekly prayer meeting at this church. His father, the pastor, told his son it would be OK just to miss Wednesday evenings. Well, as this pastor recounts, his son soon developed a desire for more and more of what wrestling and the world had to offer him. As time went on, the father lost his son to the world. He was drinking and using inappropriate language. When another pastor intervened and asked the son how he got so far away from God, the son replied that he lost respect for his father when his father, the pastor, compromised on his convictions. Of course the son has to own up to the choices he made, but he did say that he wished, when all was said and done, that his father had been more firm and unwavering.
We know how it is as adults. If we attend midweek services and both services on Sunday and do our best to have a decent prayer and study life during the week, we know how hard it is just to maintain a godly life with a godly testimony. Why would we think our young and impressionable kids could fare better than we would after removing their need to attend one of the services each week? Those are our anchors. Sunday recharges us and gets us ready for the week ahead, and just as we begin to feel defeated and faltering, we look forward to our midweek services to get us through the rest of the week. It’s no wonder that even a pastor’s son could fall victim.
But honestly, look what we, as parents, are up against. For one thing, especially in the public schools, sports are “cool” and church is “lame.” Being an athlete in high school gave you status, popularity, it got you dates, and it gave you a camaraderie that was enjoyable. In school, if you didn’t have a varsity letter, you were just in a different class. But it doesn’t stop there. There is a carrot dangled in front of the noses of these high school players in the form of a scholarship to a big time Division-I school which promises the best possibility of getting into the pros. Why wouldn’t our children want to shoot for the pros? With multimillion dollar contracts and all the allure of the glitz and glamour, it’s no wonder kids don’t see a life in the church going anywhere juxtaposed against what sports has to offer. So we can’t talk about sports without talking about the idolatry of sports in general and the idolatry of its key figures specifically.
Idolatry has many forms, but they all have the same basic premise associated with them. They all attract our attention and our focus is to be on them. In some cases, people are well intentioned and want to use these idols to draw closer to God. But in the case of sports, these idols (sports in general or its athletes) draw us away from God. God is often replaced in our priorities by our passions. I have no doubt that there are Christians in the world today who have season tickets to their professional football team and will miss one or more Sunday services each time their team plays a home game. Even if you buy a ticket for a random baseball game during the season, do you automatically eliminate games that fall on the night of church services, or do you figure it’s not a big deal to give the home team priority over God on that particular night? Whatever the case, if you put your involvement, or your child’s involvement in sports ahead of your responsibilities to God, you have made that an idol because it takes your focus off of God, even for a relatively short time…so here’s what God thinks…
IDOLATRY AND THE BIBLE
Idolatry is such a serious sin to God, that He directed Paul to warn in First Corinthians 5:11, “But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or a covetous, or an IDOLATER, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a one, no, not eat.” Paul warns that we ought not to have any fellowship with an idolater. The reason is because of the potential for that sin to spread among the congregation (Galatians 5:9). One family influencing another family to “ease up” on being dogmatic about missing church once in a while for other pursuits can put entire families and many members of a church on the same road the pastor’s son took, that eventually led him wayward. Paul is clear. Idolatry is such a serious sin that we ought not be even the least bit supportive of someone’s decision to put sports ahead of God.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. He continues to warn of the sin of idolatry in First Corinthians 6:9-10, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: Neither fornicators, nor IDOLATERS, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind…shall inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul is warning that if we willfully commit these sins giving no thought to whether it’s right to do them or not, we need to seriously consider the genuineness of our salvation experience. Like James explains in 2:14-16, true faith is the producer of good works, which is characterized by a genuine desire to do the right thing, but the absence of a desire to do right (good works) can indicate an absence of true salvation. All these warnings are backed up by several other scripture verses explaining the fate of the idolater (Ephesians 5:5; Revelation 21:8; Revelation 22:15).
Read the account Paul gave us in Romans 1:22-25. The people of his day had begun worshipping idols (men, birds, four legged-animals, and eventually creeping things). As you can see, there is a progression downward. We, as humans, are made in the image and likeness of God. When we worship God, we worship the One who created us. Once we begin worshipping any entity other than God, we lose the ability to worship a being that embodies all the qualities and characteristics that God has, to help us model our lives. Instead, these people worshipped idols that, over time, became less and less like God (it’s a long step from worshipping God to worshipping animals that creep along on the ground), but so too will that happen with us. If we begin idolizing players, and these players have a moral character that is less than ideal, our morality will be lowered to that level. Why do you think fighting in high school hockey is on the rise? Could it be because fighting in professional hockey has been glorified and high school athletes want to emulate their favorite players…their “heroes”…their idols?
Now, do you want to know why a pastor’s child can go astray so easily and innocently? Idolatry is playing right into the hands of the devil himself. In First Corinthians 10 Paul is writing to the Corinthian church explaining to them that sitting down to eat food at an idols feast was indicative of fellowship with the idols. One commentary explains: “In some strange and mysterious way, idol worship is linked with demons. Using the idols, the demons control the hearts and minds of those who worship them.” In First Corinthians 10:21, Paul warns, “Ye can not drink of the cup of the Lord, and the cup of the devils: Ye can not be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.” The commentator continues: “It would be an act of treachery and disloyalty to the Lord Jesus to profess adherence or allegiance to Him, on the one hand, and then go and have fellowship with those who sacrifice to idols. It would be morally improper and utterly wrong.” So again, if we denounce our allegiance to God in the form of skipping church on Sundays to play in a flag football league, then we are treading on unholy ground where the devil lies in wait…ready to pounce (First Peter 5:8).
Now, Paul was a Jew, and back in the days of the Old and New Testaments, the Jews weren’t really into sports like the Greeks were. But did you ever wonder if Paul were alive today if he’d have a favorite player in his favorite sport? Would he wait in line for their autograph? Would he have jackets and T-shirts and backpacks declaring his homage to some basketball player…or hockey player…or Olympic athlete? Absolutely not! How do I know such things, you ask? There’s an interesting account of Paul and Barnabas in a little town called Lystra that speaks to this point so perfectly.
In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas have just preached in a synagogue in Iconium and many Greeks and Jews were saved (vs.1). Then, they fell out of favor with the rulers in the city and were threatened (vs. 2-5). So they went off to the town of Lystra to preach (vs. 6-7). While they were there, they happened upon a man who had been lame from birth, and they healed him in view of the masses in that city (vs. 8-10). What happened next is quite intriguing and very revealing about how we should look upon our sports “heroes” and “idols.” “And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up there voices, saying in the speech of Lyaconia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men” (vs. 11). These people were not seeing Paul and Barnabas for who they were…mere mortals…servants of God. Instead, they began idolizing them and calling them such names as Zeus and Hermes (vs. 12). The priests of these mythological gods wanted to begin sacrificing to Paul and Barnabas (vs. 13).
Think about this now…these mere mortals performed feats unseen or unimagined and they got the affections of the crowd who wanted to idolize them and make sacrifices to them. I know this may be a stretch, but don’t we do the same thing? Won’t some people wait hours in a line at the mall and pay (sacrifice) hard earned dollars for an autograph or photo with an athlete? Won’t we be so loyal as to only buy the brand of sporting equipment our favorite athlete uses? (OK, I’m guilty of that one!)
We put these athletes on undeserving pedestals. But look at what Paul and Barnabas did when they were put on undeserving pedestals…”Which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of (the impending sacrifices to them) they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out, and saying, Sirs, why do ye these things. We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God…(vs. 14-15). They wouldn’t hear of it! They were merely men, no different than the Lystra citizens they were preaching to. They recognized that it was an exercise in vanity to hold them up to be worshiped.
Like so many things in this world, sports…athletics…exercise…whatever, are all neutral activities…in general. But they need to have their rightful place in our families, our own lives, and in our hearts. None of us set out to put the devil before God, but if we pass on what God would have us do, in order that we might “worship” from our seats on the 50-yard line, we might just miss out on the sweet aroma of Christian fellowship and instead catch a momentary whiff of sulfa.
Likewise, there are dangers in holding up mere mortals where they don’t belong, or deserve. There have been athletes who have been admired by young children. These athletes have done what they wanted and lived hedonistic lifestyles. Their response to the fact that children look up to them is, “I am not a role model.” There are good and decent athletes in the world, and some who will even publicly stand up for God during a post-game interview, but these are still mere mortals with the same infirmities as us.
Paul and Barnabas would have been in church…not at the games. They would never have put up posters in their rooms and created shrines to their favorite players. And, it’s obvious from the account in Acts 14 that had they been athletes, they wouldn’t have allowed themselves to be thrust upon some undeserving pedestal. They would have warned us all about the emptiness and vanity of idol worship and would have pointed us back on the correct path, as they did in Acts 14:15-17. It’s time to be a Paul or Barnabas in our families.