God and Play

What do you do to unwind? To relax in a busy day? What kinds of leisure do you enjoy? How do you like to play? I like to play the piano. Some people enjoy crosswords or Sudoku – I enjoy the mental puzzles of doing complicated things with computers. I watch television, especially science fiction. When I was a lot younger I used to play sport, my rather strange sport of lacrosse and a bit of squash or badminton. For years I have settled for long walks by the sea or in the woods. And to help us play, we have a spaniel! How do you like to play?
We are thinking about “God every day as we work, rest and play.” Of all the sermons in this series, this may be the most important. “God and play.” How do our recreation and our leisure fit in with God’s plan for our lives?
Play is good! Leisure is important. Recreation is vital – it literally “re-creates” us. Play is part of God’s plan for human beings and part of His plan for heaven.
Isaiah 11 7The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
Play is good. But it has been said that too many people today worship their work, work at their play and play at their worship. We live in the Age of Entertainment. Many people are working shorter hours than our forefathers. We have appliances to take care of most of the household chores which used to be done by hand and vehicles to transport us anywhere we want to go while our forefathers only walked everywhere. Most people have more leisure time to relax and enjoy themselves and more money to spend on their leisure than most could have dreamed of a century ago or even when I was growing up. Entertainment is no longer something people do with family and friends and in the village. Entertainment is a multi-billion pound industry. Yet I suspect you will never have heard a single sermon on “God and Play” before. Just what difference should following Jesus make to our leisure and our recreation as Christians?
Colossians 3:17 reminds us, 17 Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
We should be able to offer every aspect of our lives as thanksgiving to God. We should be able to do everything we do “In Jesus’s Name”, in the way Jesus would have done it. And that includes our play. There are very few Bible verses which speak about “play” but this morning I want to point us to a number of important principles which apply to the whole of our lives, and particularly to our play. Let’s begin by thinking about
The prophet Zechariah gives us a beautiful picture of heaven.
Zechariah 8 3 This is what the LORD says: “I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the City of Truth, and the mountain of the LORD Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain.”
4 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with cane in hand because of his age. 5 The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”
Boys and girls will be playing together in the streets of heaven! And us older ones will enjoy watching them. This reminds us that an essential element of play and recreation has always been community. Play has always been a shared experience. But patterns of life have changed in recent years. The word “play” has gained new meanings but lost old ones.
Play has become passive. We find the word “play” in the Bible nearly 19 times in the sense of people playing musical instruments, making music. Until the spread of the gramophone music was always live, people playing or singing while others were entertained by the live performance. Nowadays when most people “play” music they just press a button on their laptop or phone or mp3 player and listen to recorded music as performed by professionals. A century ago most people “played” sport. Football or cricket or tennis were sports people took part in, while their family friends might have watched. Now we have spectator sports – most people watch rather than play, and usually watch in the comfort of their own homes on television rather than live. So nowadays most people have become merely consumers of music and sport rather than participants in it. We are accustomed to being entertained by professionals rather than entertaining each other. Play has become passive rather than active and some children are growing up not knowing how to entertain themselves or each other. Some children really don’t know how to “play” together.
Play has become individual, not communal. When the word “entertain” appears in the Bible it is referring to showing hospitality. In human society, entertaining was a shared activity. But the rise of radio and television and the internet and mobile smartphones means that now we don’t need to be with other people to be entertained. Video games and virtual reality encourage people to retreat into their own individual worlds of fantasy and imagination. Instead of sharing in play with other people, it is too easy to entertain ourselves alone.
The National Association of Head Teachers’ conference last week reported that “computers and smartphones have become “a digital dummy” used by parents to pacify their children.” “Children are coming to school tired because they have stayed up late watching TV or playing on electronic devices like computers and PlayStations in their rooms.” Entertainment has become individual, not communal.
God within Himself is community, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And human beings are designed for community – to have relationships with other people. We are not designed to hide away in our own individual worlds all the time. Play is good – but patterns of play which encourage us always to be passive rather than active and always to be alone rather than in community can be harmful both to our humanity and to our spirituality.
Play is a good thing. Leisure and recreation are very good for our wellbeing. But as Christians we need to bear in mind that some forms of play can be damaging, either in themselves or because they can lead us into temptation.
The Bible has many warnings against falling into sin.
Ephesians 5 3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.
God calls us to keep ourselves pure and holy. There are at least four obvious areas where play and recreation can lead people into temptation.
Violence. We should beware of television or films or video games where violence is presented as entertaining. I can’t remember where I heard the statistic that the average viewer witnesses a thousand deaths on television every year.. I think that is an underestimate. But the dangers are obvious in drip-feeding people and especially children them so that they become desensitised to violence.
Sex. We must recognize the same dangers of the portrayal of sex in the media and especially through the internet, drawing people away from God’s standards of purity and faithfulness to worship the false gods of lust. We would all be shocked if we watched the kinds of pop videos or read the kinds of comics most teenagers read.
Gambling is another area of risk when so much play is built around games of chance. I’m not thinking so much about a good natured game of monopoly or bridge. But poker or roulette can lead to bankruptcy. We must be careful not to bring up our children to rely on “luck” or “chance” or “fate”. Some people start with the excitement of online gaming and end up ruining their lives. This is an important area and I will preach on the dangers of gambling in an evening service in a few weeks time.
Doorways to the occult. So many films and television programmes are based on aspects of the occult. When we lived in Borehamwood the area was filled with demonic activity, which was partly the legacy of all the horror films produced there between 1960 and 1980. Films and books and games may seem harmless in themselves but can lead youngsters especially to experiment with tarot cards or Ouija boards or séances and open themselves to demonic attack. I still haven’t made up my mind about just how dangerous the Harry Potter films and books are. But anybody who dabbles in real magic or spells is asking for trouble. Not all “play” is innocent – it can be deadly dangerous!
Violence. Sex. Gambling. The occult. Just four areas where entertainment can lead people into temptation. 1 Peter 2:16 says, “Be holy, for I am Holy.”
We must make sure that we do not allow the world around to squeeze us into its own mould or drag it down to its level. In particular we should not ignore the pervasive effects of television and the internet. The broadcaster Sir David Frost once said something very significant. “Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you would never allow into your home.” If a stranger came into our house and insisted on talking about half the things we hear on television, we would politely but firmly invite them to leave. If a stranger walked into our homes and showed us, and even more showed our children, graphic images of violence or sexual behaviour or unwholesome activities of all kinds, we would throw that stranger out. Yet we allow the television to stay on. Most people treat their televisions a bit like some people treat a pet cat – you pay it attention when you want to and ignore it for the rest of the time. Perhaps we should treat our television more like a pet crocodile! Handle carefully, keep at arm’s length and always stay vigilant in case it strikes out and delivers a fatal bite.
And the dangers of television are only multiplied in the dangers the internet brings not just to our door, but into every room in the house and with smartphones now, potentially to every waking moment wherever we are.
Philippians 4 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
We need to make sure that our leisure and our recreation builds us up and does not drag us down!
Play is good! At the same time, all of us are accountable to God for how we have lived and how we have taken care of all that He has entrusted to us. How much does our play cost us?
Cost in money. Some kinds of recreation are inexpensive. Some are very expensive! Keeping up with the latest consoles, games or smartphones is expensive. Following a team to their away matches or following a band to all their gigs is expensive. God has made us stewards of the resources He has given us. We have to think about just how much we spend “playing.” I am sure that God wants us to enjoy life. But if we are spending more on our recreation and entertainment than we are giving to God’s work, something may not be right. If we are spending more on our “play” than some people in England have to live on, we may need to think again. We must be good stewards.
Cost in time. God does not expect us to work every hour of every day. We need our sleep. We need our one day in seven of rest and spiritual refreshment. We all need play, recreation and leisure. They are good for us – they refresh us and restore us. But not everybody needs as much “play” as the entertainment industry would like us to believe. Many people spend huge amounts of time being entertained by the television, or by computer games. But what we think of as “our” time belongs to God just as much as what we like to call “our” money belongs to God. Play is good. Recreation is good. Leisure is good. They are vital for our physical health and our mental health and our spiritual wellbeing. But when the television or the computer squeezes out time with family and friends, something is wrong. When television or computer squeeze out prayer and Bible study and worship and fellowship something is very wrong. Until the 1960s in Britain Sunday evening church services were universally better attended than morning services. Just one thing changed that pattern forever. The 26 weeks of the Forsythe Saga competing with evening services. And the television won. If our play gets in the way of our worship, we are only playing at following Jesus.
More than half a century ago A.W.Tozer warned Christians about the dangers of “that great god entertainment”. In these days the greatest challenge to religion is not heresy or atheism but entertainment. The media challenges the church not on the grounds of truth but on the grounds of enjoyment and excitement. People can sit glued to the television for hours watching Inspector Morse or Pirates of the Caribbean or a football match or a snooker match. But 25 minutes for a sermon or a quarter of an hour in prayer and Bible reading is too much to ask. It is so easy to fill our lives with trivia, which can even lead us into temptation, rather than fill our lives with Christian things.
God and play. Recreation and community. Recreation and temptation. Recreation and stewardship. Being a Christian is not just a hobby. Our Christian faith is not just a pastime or a recreation. Following Jesus is not just a different kind of playing which has to compete with all the other varieties of leisure on offer. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. Jesus is Sovereign – Jesus is the boss. And Jesus deserves and demands to be Lord of our work, AND of our rest, AND of our play.

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