On 29th March the Northern Ireland football team will play their first ever home international on a Sunday with a European Championship qualifier against Finland. Whilst there have been several occasions in the past where Northern Ireland have played games abroad on the Lord's Day (including the 1982 World Cup where Glentoran winger Johnny Jameson would not play in the Sunday game against France), this will be the first occasion that international football has taken place at Windsor Park on a Sunday. Although this is a sad development it is hardly a surprising one as respect for the Lord's Day has been in rapid decline for many years, not only among the unsaved, but also among professed believers.
The Irish Football Association have stated that the scheduling of this game is beyond their control as the fixture dates are dictated by UEFA, and this may well be the case, however the lifting of the IFA's ban on Sunday football in 2007 cannot be ignored. Either way it is a matter about which Christians in Ulster should be grieved as it is further evidence of declining biblical standards in our land. The event does however also call us to consider our own attitude to the Lord's Day and contemplate how we have sought to keep it holy. It is clear that Northern Ireland as a whole is more and more rejecting the setting apart of one day in seven as holy to the Lord, the question is whether Christians have actually contributed to this decline.
For Christian football fans we may ask ourselves what will actually bother us more; the fact we cannot attend the game due to it being played on a Sunday (we are not even contemplating the idea that attending the game can be justified), or the fact that the Lord's Day is being desecrated in such a manner? Are we more disappointed at missing the game, or more disappointed at the lack of respect being given to the Christian Sabbath? All too often, even as Christians, we can hold a negative view of the Lord's Day; it is an inconvenience and hinders us from doing much that we would otherwise like to do. This is a totally wrong view to hold of the Sabbath. It is more appropriate that we look at it as God intended, as a blessing and a delight, rejoicing that we are able to set aside one day a week for the 'public and private exercises of Gods worship'.
How many of us if we are honest are actually hypocritical in our opposition to Sunday sport? We might protest when a game is scheduled in our town on a Sunday, yet we will watch it at home on television, listen to it on the radio or follow it online. A quick glance at the popular social media websites on Sunday will regularly reveal and abundance of Christians commenting on the day's sporting events. Publicly we are opposed to the game taking place, yet privately we are not so opposed that we are able to completely separate ourselves from it.
This issue of course is not solely confined to sport. Restaurants and shops are open on Sunday and increasingly Christians can be found frequenting them, the Lord's Day being reduced to nothing more than the Lord's hour in the morning and (perhaps) the evening. Instead of the Sabbath being set aside as a day for rest and worship, it is now just as much a day for leisure as any other day, and often more so, for the weekend is surely too short unless we can also utilise Sunday for our social activities. Sunday overtime pays well, and we will readily take it when it is offered to us. Publicly we may be disappointed at having to miss the Sunday services, yet the contribution to our bank balance helps to alleviate our concerns.
Has coldness of heart and a low regard for the fourth commandment among many believers contributed to the Sabbath desecration which we see all around us? It must surely be the case for 'if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted'. We cannot expect the world to hold a high view of the Lord's day when many Christians do not have a high view of it themselves. Occasions such as the football match which will be played this Sunday are grieving, yet do present an opportunity to take a stand for the Lord. Regular Northern Ireland supporters can make a point through an empty seat and all Christians can publicly declare the will of the Lord in this matter.
'If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.' (Isaiah 58:13-14)