Recreation on the Day of Re-Creation?

Saint Aurelius Augustine (354-430) had his finger on the pulse of all men, when he confessed, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in Thee” (Confessions, 1.1).  Ever since our first parents gave up restful communion with God in favor of servile hiding from him and were banished from the Garden of Eden (lest they take and eat of the Tree of Life and live forever in their restless, fallen condition – Ge 3:22), we have been a people in desperate need of rest.  Our forebears in the faith wandered in the Egyptian wilderness and rest was hard to come by.  The Prophets of the OT called out to a people unable to wring rest out of their rebellion.  Indeed, before Augustine ever confessed, Christ called out, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 28:11-30, ESV).

The contentment we lost in the fall could only be restored to us by the Second Adam, who entered the chaos and restlessness of our broken humanity, and by whose resurrection the reality and hope of rest is now ours.  The Book of Hebrews is actually a sermon calling out to a people tempted to revert to the restless wandering of their former traditions.  He does this by pointing to the superiority of Christ, who alone, unlike Moses or Joshua, could provide the rest of communion with God that was lost in the fall.  Jesus is the reality and manifestation of that restful communion we now have with God.  The author assures his readers that they (and we!) live between the already and not-yet of an eternal Sabbath rest.  We experience true rest in Christ now, even as we await its manifestation in the New Heaven and New Earth.

Through the ages of the Christian Church, saints have wrestled with what it looks like to celebrate and honor the rest Christ has won for us.  After all, the law of God exhorts us to honor the Sabbath Day to keep it holy (Ex 20:8-11).  We do this by ceasing from our workaholic ways, and worshipping and trusting God to provide for us via the means of six days of work.  Sabbath celebration is an act of trust and contenting ourselves in God’s faithful provision, especially as it relates to his provision in the death and resurrection of Christ, which restores lost communion.  In fact, the very reason the NT people of God observed a change from the seventh day to the first day of the week for their Sabbath worship was precisely because Christ rose on the first day of the week (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:2; Lk 24:1; Jn 20:1; Acts 20:7; 1Co 16:1-2; Rev 1:10).

The idea of Sabbath is embedded in the Hebrew שַׁבָּת, which means to rest, be seated.  The Puritan giants--upon whose shoulders we stand--crafted our church’s theological confession, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechism (1642-47).  They were possessed of the deepest, most profound reverence for Scripture.  They loved the law of God (119:97).  They were also pressured by the imposition of Archbishop Laud’s (1573-1645) Book of Sports, which insisted that all subjects of the crown participate in sporting events on the Lord’s Day.  The Puritans rightly saw this dictate as part and parcel of a forced conformity to aspects of the theology, polity, and practice of the Church of England that they found out of accord with the Bible.

The WLC states:

            Q. 117. 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 dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.

Clearly, these were men who felt strong reverence for the place of rest and worship on the Lord’s Day.  Far from the grim grey-beards they are caricatured as being, they took great delight in Sunday.  In fact, they called Sunday “The Market Day of the Soul” on which the believer availed himself of the restorative means of grace. 

However, down through the ages, some with the Reformed tradition have struggled with their total prohibition of recreation on the Sabbath.  Many Puritans looked to Isa 58:13-14 and its warning against “seeking your own pleasure” to defend their prohibition of recreation on the Lord’s Day:

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; 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 (ESV).

Contextually, Isaiah is warning the people of Israel against turning commercial productivity into an idolatrous basis of sustenance, and instead calling them to understand pleasure in a whole different way – by delighting in the LORD!  In other words, worship in community with God’s people was (and is) to be the greatest expression of our delight in our truest pleasure – the Lord, himself.

This, however, does not mean recreation, in and of itself, is ipso facto subversive of resting and honoring the Lord on the Lord’s Day.  Obviously, recreation, as anything else in creation, can be idolized and made obstructive of Lord’s Day worship.  The Puritans were certainly and rightly on guard against this.  However, other Reformed theologians of the continent did not see all forms of recreation in this way, due, perhaps, partly to their different historical and ecclesial circumstance, as compared to their English counterparts.  My own denomination (PCA), among others, allows ordinands to hold what some call a Continental View of the Sabbath.  There is even debate over just what this phrase has and should mean historically.  That said, some form of this is commonly held by those desiring to make a definite and unqualified priority of the church’s ministries of worship and mercy, yet recognizing at the same time that, when not allowed to supplant the church’s gathered worship, some forms of “recreation” on Sundays are just that – re-creative, thus restorative and anticipatory of all things being made eschatologically new, when they are enjoyed as unto the Lord (Col 3:17), in recognition that the reality of the resurrection of Christ makes, not only restful communion with God a reality, but also makes play profound, if I may so speak.  For instance, just this past Sunday, my family enjoyed worship with our local church, followed by our family’s weekly Sunday nursing home ministry with another family from our Sunday School class.  That afternoon, we had what we call our monthly “Lego Sunday,” wherein we all sit down in the middle of the floor for a couple of hours and put Legos together… together, as a family.  In this case, it was a Hobbit Lego.  Naturally, we talked about how sin, temptation, and idolatry can have Golum-like consequences.  Later, we picked up all the Lego pieces and made space for our Bibles and song sheets, as it was time for a little bit of family worship before bedtime.  In other words, a little play on the Lord’s Day just may a sign of a restless heart letting its guard down and celebrating contentment.  A little re-creation may signal a heart confident that, in the new creation, the unhindered way to the Tree of Life will once again be open to us (Rev 22:2).

Obviously much more can be said on these important matters.  Perhaps, this little piece can be a conversation starter among folks committed to a high view of the Lord’s Day (Isa 58:13-14), the absolute necessity of worship with the community of the faith (Heb 10:24-25), and also recreation as restorative, given the Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mk 2:27).