As many of you know, I work for Crisis Centre Ministries. We work with some of the mose needy and vulnerable people living in our society today: the homeless, drug addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes. People who have grown up in broken homes, suffered abuse and neglect as children; people who have no hope for a better life other than through crime and violence.
It's quite easy to talk about the work we do, and you would probably feel reasonably impressed by it all. It's quite easy to tell you touching stories about some of the the people we work with, easy to move you with details of the awful things they have lived through, and the impossible challenges they face on a daily basis. Too easy.
Instead, I would like to try to give you something of a feel for our work and the people we serve by talking about the vision and ethos of our work, and by applying it to things a little closer to home.
It's not easy, being church. On the one hand, you want to encourage fervent worship and confident faith, but on the other hand, we know that this is not the experience of most people outside the church. If they come in, they may be impressed by the enthusiasm and confidence, but rarely will they relate to it. Instead, they are more likely to be glad you have found something that works for you, but be quite convinced it is not for them.
Other churches go to the opposite extreme: they are so willing and able to share their doubts and uncertainties that when outsiders come in, they conclude these people have nothing to offer, and leave again. Somehow we have to hold these two aspects together - celebrating a real relationship with the living God, but doing so in a way that welcomes and accepts those who do not share our faith yet.
This is what we are seeking to do at the Crisis Centre: demonstrate God's love by the way we live, and talk about Him with our words in such a way that people are drawn to get to know Him better.
There are probably two groups of people here today: those of you who are hoping I'll give a good, traditional sermon, and those who are, maybe secretly, hoping for something different.
If you are anything like me, most of you will have sat through at least one sermon a week for... years. And if you are like me, you probably can't remember more than a handful of those sermons, so, if you will permit, I would like to ask your indulgence: if you were hoping for a traditional sermon, please bear with me for a little while, and see where we go.
Instead of a text, if it's not too personal, I would like to ask a question: why are we here? I'm not asking about the purpose behind the universe, of the ultimate meaning of our lives, although those are both excellent questions. I mean: you and me, here this morning. Why did we come? Why not stay tucked up in bed, or read a book, or go for a walk?
I know the correct answer: we are here to worship God and to share in fellowship with one another.
But in my job, I talk with a lot of people, and I also know that the real reasons why people attend church are as varied as the people who attend. Some people will be here from habit, some from family pressure, or because you don't want to let people down or disappoint them. Some are here to meet friends, and some because you are curious about God and about Jesus and this whole Christianity thing.
Many people will be here, at least in part, because you feel it is good to give a part of each week over to God, to connect again in some way, to remember again that there are such things as eternal values and eternal destinations and faith journeys and because you know that anything else you do in the rest of the week is a bit pointless, and rather empty, if it is not connected in some way with God and with the things that really matter.
We are all on a faith journey, and in a healthy, growing church, we can expect that most people will be growing in their faith. Of course, a growing faith means different things for different people: for some, it is understanding the doctrines of our faith more clearly; for some it means a growing confidence that the things we believe in are actually true; for some it means a growing acceptance that there are probably aspects of the Christian faith that I may never really understand, that at root it is not about understanding and believing doctrines, but about loving and trusting God even when I don't understand what He is doing, and about loving the people around me even though they disappoint and frustrate me at times. Growing faith means accepting the fact that true love costs, and that the cross is a way of life as well as an historic event.
But there will also, probably, be a few people who are treading water, or moving backwards. People, maybe, with questions and doubts about what you think you are supposed to believe, or who are starting to suspect that you don't quite fit in the way you once thought you did.
I want to tell you this morning that I believe the gospel message is true, and it is just as true and relevant to those of us who have been a Christian for decades as it is for those who have only just heard it. It is just as true and relevant to those who are beginning to doubt and feel on the edge of things as those who are rock certain in their beliefs and are totally engaged in living out what they believe.
I believe that God is good: He is holy and He is is loving, He wants to walk with us through our lives, and He wants to change our lives. Yes, He does want to touch the lives of those who don't yet believe, and if that is true for you this morning and you are willing to take the risk of responding to Him, you are in for the most wonderful surprise of our life.
When we first believed, it seemed that God was going to turn our lives upside down, and then go on to change the world though us. And, for a while, it all looked possible. But further down the line, we look around and find that we are living lives that are pretty much like the people around us, and it doesn't look like we will be making much more of an impact on the world this month than we did last month.
Some people survive by living in the hope of a Revival that will burst in and make everything the way it should be. Others constantly chase the latest spiritual craze, and hope that this author or that conference will provide the missing piece and turn their life around.
Personally, I don't believe the answer is in books, although I have been greatly helped by a few. I don't believe the answer is in conferences, although I have been touched by God and deeply blessed at such times. I don't even believe the answer is in Revival, because they come and go.
I believe the answer is in God, and remembering the simple gospel message. God is good: He is holy and He is is loving, He wants to walk with us through our lives, and He wants to change our lives - just as much now, as when we first believed.
The tragedy of so many in the church is that we have allowed God into our lives, we have experienced His transforming power in conversion, but we have not followed it through to a lifetime if discipleship, a lifetime of being constantly changed and challenged and turned around by God.
As Paul says, it is like marriage. You fall in love and everything is wonderful, and you get married and your life turns upside down and gets even better. But sooner or later you wake up and there are dishes and shelves to put up and nappies to wash and PTA meetings to attend, and what happened?
Now, for some of us, there is a simple answer. For some it is as simple as the books say: repent; return to your first love. Stop fooling around with your secretary, or flirting with the man in the hardware store. Stop fantasising about the wonderful life you are missing out on, and start living in the real world with the life you have been given. Or whatever. But if there is a simple answer for you, you probably already know what it is: all you have to do is to act on it. If you want help or need encouragement, I'm sure there are folk here who will be more than happy to help you through.
But for others, there is no problem to be fixed. Of course, there are problems, dozens of them, but they will probably get fixed in time, and you know that fixing them will not produce the change you are looking for.
For many of us, the hard truth is that our marriage simply needs to be worked on, and our faith needs to be worked out.
What do I mean?
Many Christians say that they encounter God in times of worship. For some, it is every week; for others, it is much more occasionally. Now, meeting with God in a time of worship is great. It is what ought to happen. But meeting with God only in times of worship is a disaster. It's like meeting your husband or wife only at weddings or funerals.
God is living in us, and we take His presence wherever we go. He is present with us in our work, when we are shopping, or washing the dishes, or chatting with the neighbours, or watching TV. He is not only present when we are evangelising or reading our Bibles or praying. The question is: what difference do we allow Him to make to our work, to our shopping, to our TV?
That is a really important question, possibly one of the most important questions we face, but it is hard to answer. The answer will be different for each one of us. How do we discover that answer? I would like to suggest the answer comes in two parts.
First, we live with the question. Keep asking it. Don't take silence for an answer, don't accept the status quo. Persevere.
Second, start with the easy answers. Put yourself into situations where you can be confident of getting some kind of answer. You don't start reading with War and Peace, you start with A B C and Janet and John.
We are called to love God and love the people around us. So find or create situations where God's presence in your life will make a difference to the way you love Him and the people you meet.
You can do this very easily at the Crisis Centre. It is only one of hundreds of possible routes for you to use, but it is a very good place to start because the needs and the challenges are very clear. I believe the work we do captures the essence of all autentic Christian ministry.
The first point is this: whatevery you do, you have to do it as a Christian, in the name of Jesus. People have to know you are doing it as a Christian, so you have to tell them. If you don't tell them, they will not understand, they will simply think you are wonderful, nice people: they will probably be very impressed by you, but they will not give thanks to God for the work you do, and they will not ask you the difficult questions that come when you seek to meet real world needs in the name of Jesus.
Unless you tell them, they will never understand that true spirituality has to be grounded - worked out in the mess and the chaos and the confusion of the real world - the world they live in.
Unless you tell them you are acting as God's representatives, they will never make the connection between the lovely, holy, serene God living above the clouds and the pain and mess they are living with.
The second point is that Christian ministry is always about attempting the impossible. If you can do it without God, then you don't need God's involvement. If you are asked to put out the chairs ready for a meeting, you don't immediately call a prayer meeting and ask for God's power to enable you to undertake this task. You just get on and do it, because you know you can.
Now I know that all that everything we do can only be done though the grace and power of God, but you understand the point I'm making here, don't you?
We are called to do the impossible: to love the unlovely, for example. We cannot do this in our own strength - we need the Holy Spirit to enable us.
We are seeking to help people whose problems are so great they cannot be fixed. We need God do step in and do a miracle, as nothing else will work, nothing else will meet the need.
And the third point is that, as we do this impossible work in the name of Jesus, we will meet people who have questions that we don't know the answers to.
If you are like me, you will have attended many Bible studies in homegroups and other places. But they are almost always very safe. You get asked questions, but there is almost always a 'right' answer that you are expected to know, or encouraged to find.
And even when there is no answer, most of the time they will still give you something that claims to be the right answer.Christians are so nice that if you tell them you have answered their question, most of the time they will believe you.
But these people with impossible problems who we are meeting in the name of Jesus will ask unanswerable questions, and not accept the trite answers we find it so easy to give to each other. "Why is my child suffering?" "Well, we need to have faith that God knows what He is doing..." - we know that is not a real answer, and when someone is really asking the question, they will not be fobbed off by something that only pretends to be an answer.
And when we know we don't have the answers, then we start to understand and believe that we need to hear God speaking, really speaking to us, though the Bible and through prayer. And while He will probably not give us the total, all-embracing answer to the problem of pain, He may well give the bit of the answer that this person in front of me needs to hear and is able to receive right now.
We have to remember that it is His ministry, not yours or mine. He wants to reach out to the poor, the weak, the excluded. But He wants to do it through you and me.
And as we discover what it means for God to be present, to meet needs, to answer prayers, to speak into the emptiness of the human heart, in those situations of obvious need, we can begin to apply these lessons to the more difficult situations - we can discover how to walk each day with Him so that He can make a difference in our jobs and friendships and marriages and homes - we can discover how He wants to make a difference, not only through us, but also in us.
By allowing Him to touch others, by making ourselves available for His use, we are also allowing Him to transform us. Step by step, houor by hour, day by day. That is the secret of how to grow, and how to continue to grow in the faith - how we can be His disciples. It is not by focussing on ourselves and our need to be disciples, but by focussing on God, what He is like, what He wants to do, and how He wants to extend His love and grace to hurting people in a broken world.