Sports, idolatry, and mission

The Incarnation. It’s a topic for sermons each December. God takes on flesh in Jesus and enters into our circumstance in the humblest of ways in order to save us. It’s one of the most beautiful images of our faith, which is why we come back to it year after year.

But incarnation has year-round implications. And it isn’t just what God does for us in Jesus. Incarnation is what God calls us to do ourselves as we follow Jesus. Sure, we can’t do it in the same way that Jesus did it or with such powerful consequences. But as Eugene Peterson says: We don’t just follow Jesus the Way, we follow the way that Jesus is the Way. We do things the way our Lord does things. And that means entering into the worlds of those around us even at great cost to ourselves that they might be saved.

As Americans, we love our sports. But I’ve never lived in such an actively athletic and outdoorsy community as I do now that I’ve moved to Bend, Oregon. People uproot and move here because of its stunning beauty. They want to be outside in it, not watching Netflix. Because this is the preoccupation of the people we now live among, it has increasingly become our occupation as we incarnate, as we move into their worlds. And that means a lot of sports for us.

Immediately, we’ve become aware of the cost (for incarnation always comes with a cost) not just in money, but in time. Kids’ sporting activities can and often do become a black hole that will suck your life. We see it around us. We hear stories about it and local pastors bemoan it (mostly because of people missing Sunday services for tournaments). We see the potential of getting sucked in within ourselves.

There is real danger here. It’s understandable that people would reject it out of hand because of the relational and spiritual damage they see around them. That’s what happens when good things become ultimate things; when good things become idols. So, we pray. We talk about it as a family and with our community. We attempt to be vigilant in making sure that we don’t bow down to the great idol of athletics.

What we don’t do is abandon those around us to this good-thing-become-idol. We enter into this world, loving it (“for God so loved the world”) but not bowing to it. And by this incarnational action, we hope that God will work redemption through us.

And once we’ve prayed, we say, “Let’s play!”

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