Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Topic Sentence for 2009

Mark 1:1

I’ve been getting emails from my friends and family in Southern California this week. Mostly it’s to gloat about the weather. My hometown of Burbank has been staying in the mid-60s over the holidays—that’s about 20 Centigrade.

My former colleagues at Fuller Seminary wrote to ask if I missed working the annual fund raising events this year. Fuller is in Pasadena, which hosts a famous Rose Parade and also the Rose Bowl college football game. We brought our major donors from around the country to visit the campus, hear some lectures and meet students. At the end we took them to the Parade and the football game. It was a great event, but I don’t miss having to work it.

And so we come to the first Sunday in 2009. Happy New Year! I keep saying that and hearing that, but it doesn’t sound very convincing this time. 2008 ended looking like the last person to finish a marathon. You know the guy—the world class runners have all finished hours before, but one straggler makes his way into the stadium and wobbles over the finish line spent, completely exhausted and barely alive.

The end of the last year felt a little like that, didn’t it?

The news about the economy was awful. The conflict in the Middle East hit the spin cycle again, and who knows how this round will end? Happy New Year? It’s going to take a bit of work to say that without sounding sarcastic or cruel or ironic. This past year wobbled to the finish line spent—completely exhausted and barely alive.

But it’s still important that we say wish and pray for a truly happy new year—and that we mean it when we say it, right down to our bones.

Our text is just one verse, the very first line of Mark’s gospel.

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark’s gospel is one fast-paced piece of writing. He doesn’t even cover the birth of Jesus—he just gets right into his life and ministry, and then the events of Good Friday and Easter. Mark’s Jesus moves from place to place and event to event, usually ‘immediately’, a word that shows up about 40 times. But no matter how Mark chose to tell the story of Jesus, the key is found in the first sentence: ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’

I have freely admitted before here that I’m an English nerd. I’m the son of two English teachers, I majored in English myself, and I have a love for writing and speaking correctly. One of the most important parts of writing clearly and persuasively is the use of topic sentences. Now don’t go to sleep here. A topic sentence is like the steering wheel for a paragraph—it helps you go in the right direction. One online writer’s workshop posted this definition:

A well-organized paragraph supports or develops a single controlling idea, which is expressed in a sentence called the topic sentence. A topic sentence has several important functions: it substantiates or supports an essay’s thesis statement; it unifies the content of a paragraph and directs the order of the sentences; and it advises the reader of the subject to be discussed and how the paragraph will discuss it.

I can hear some of you groaning… But think about that for a moment. The topic sentence points us toward a passage that develops a single controlling idea.

The topic sentence for Mark’s gospel was simple: The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Making that the topic sentence—the controlling idea—for our lives a big part of what it means to have a truly happy new year. Believing the good news of God’s Messiah—of Jesus Christ—is the key to understanding what real happiness means, and to living truly happy lives. That’s why that first sentence of Mark’s gospel is so important.

And so here’s a truth that I want to place at the very beginning of this new year: True happiness begins with an acknowledgment of Christ’s Lordship in our lives and in our church. That’s it. That’s our ‘single, controlling idea’ for the year. Think back on the opening sentence of Mark’s gospel: The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That’s what I hope will become the foundation for what we believe and do in this place. That’s the true source of happiness for our lives.

How does that happen? How do we say Happy New Year and mean it? How do we say Happy New Year and practice it in our own lives?

I’ve mentioned Dennis Prager here before. He’s a radio talk show host in the States who wrote a book a few years ago called Happiness is a Serious Problem. In the book he said this:

As important as happiness is, if you make it your most important value, you can never attain it. Happiness is only achievable when it is a by-product of something else, and you must hold that other something to be more important than happiness.

Does that make sense? You can worry about being happy, or you can build your life on a foundation of important things like faith, family, friendships and service.

We’re going to talk about that a little next week. But the question for us today, on the first Sunday of the year, is this: How will you take the lead in your homes and workplaces and families—in making the good news of Jesus Christ your topic sentence—your controlling idea—for the coming year?

What we learn from the way Mark starts his gospel is this: It’s crucially important to make sure that whatever else we do or try to do in the coming year, that it’s all built on our commitment to wrestle with what it means to believe that Jesus Christ, God’s own son, is the Lord and Savior of everything.

Let that be our collective New Year’s resolution. When we say Happy New Year to each other, let it be an invitation to a year of growth in faith, maturing of our character, and a renewal of our sense of purpose as brothers and sisters in Christ.

As we come to the Table this morning, we begin a new year in the walk of faith—a new year in the journey of growing as disciples of Jesus Christ. I invite you, no matter where you are in your journey, to share in this celebration of faith and wonder and service.

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