/ football / Kyle Borg

Competing for the First Day

On top of Mount Sinai, Moses received a revelation of Jehovah. The one, true, and living God delivered to him two tablets of stone inscribed by the divine finger that summarized his moral will — epitomized in a love to God and a love to neighbor. But as Moses tarried on the mountaintop the people of Israel grew restless and fashioned for themselves a golden calf and celebrated, laughed, and danced. Moses’ anger burned hot and in a symbolic gesture he shattered the tablets of stone at the foot of the mountain – the covenant was broken. Then he challenged the people of Israel asking: “Who is on the Lord’s side” and only the sons of Levi crossed over, and that day three thousand men on the other side were killed at their hands.

Who is on the Lord’s side? That’s a question that needs to uncomfortably confront any of our commitments and loyalties. We don’t stand at the foot of Sinai in the shadow of the golden calf, but there’s plenty of calves erected in our society and hearts and many are willing to break loose before them — there are idols before whom we celebrate, laugh, and dance.

As summer fades and we slip into our fall routines there’s nothing that will dominate the first day of the week like professional football. Beginning with the NFL draft and marching toward “Superbowl Sunday,” there will be more than 100 million viewers of America’s most popular sport — with last year’s end of the season game drawing 115 million viewers. With religious excitement and commitment the masses will gather in stadiums or around screens to watch what the Wall Street Journal estimated to be a per-game average of eleven minutes of actual action. Those eleven minutes will determine how many Americans decide to spend their Sunday orienting hours around them.

The NFL hasn’t always played primarily on Sundays. The schedule was largely set by the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961. Congress essentially banned the NFL from televising games on Saturdays during the college football season, and also on Fridays to protect high school football. Sunday provided an alternative that wouldn’t interfere with either and, from a broadcasting perspective, had potential as Sunday was, for many, a day off. It proved to be a big (really big) pay off. Football would become defining of the first day of the week. In his book America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, Michael McCambridge wrote: “The entire enterprise came to dominate America’s living rooms on fall weekends, changing the rhythm, tone, and nature of Sunday afternoons across the country.”

That the NFL changed the rhythm, tone, and nature of the first day of the week is a fascinating observation and one that cannot be ignored. Since creation God has commanded a certain rhythm to our week — while six days have been given to us, one day in seven has been set apart for God: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 5:13). Not only did God write that rhythm into our creation, he also commanded that the tone of the day be one of holiness: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and he has constituted its nature to be a day of particular blessing: “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Genesis 2:3).

From the beginning of the world until the resurrection of Jesus Christ this set apart day was the last day of the week. But the resurrection — infinitely more significant than any event in human history and certainly a game of toss and catch — changed that and set the rhythm, tone, and nature in relation to the first day of the week which is biblically called the Lord’s Day. In his book Worship, Feasting, Rest, Mercy, Daniel Howe said: “Just as the seventh-day Sabbath celebrated the beginning of the world, the first-day Sabbath celebrated the beginning of a new world under the reign of the Lord Jesus.”

On the one hand, there’s the rhythm, tone, and nature of the first day of the week prescribed by God in relation to creation and redemption. On the other, is the changed rhythm, tone, and nature that football has introduced into the life of our society. As a new season of the NFL kicks-off, Christians should reflectively ask if that change is in harmony with the design of God — and the question must confront us: Who is on the Lord’s side? Because maybe, just maybe we've exchanged a golden calf for a golden pigskin.