Summary: Preached for the first anniversary of Salem Gospel Ministries, a church for French-speaking Africans. Like the Christians of Antioch, you fled persecution, you reached out beyond your own group, and you have learned for a year from your pastors.
What a difference a year makes! Just one short year. Just twelve months. It is not long, but it can make a difference. It can be one year toward eternity.
Just one short year ago I was still in my 60’s, but now I have started a new decade! Adrien and Barbara, I hope I do not show it too badly! A year can make a difference – more gray hair, more sag in the old face, more drag in the weary body! What a difference a year makes!
A year ago we American voters were all caught up with Rudy, Mike, Fred, Mitt, Joe, John, and Chris, as well as Hillary, Barack, and the other John; and now there are only three. Most of us cannot even remember the last names of all the others! What a difference a year makes!
A year ago, we were getting worried because gasoline prices were averaging a little more than $2.50 a gallon in Maryland. I know I thought that was high because I can remember the days when it sold for less than thirty cents a gallon! I told you I am 70 years old, so you can guess how far back that was. But a year ago, $2.50 a gallon; today I just about had to mortgage the house in order to fill up the car at about a dollar more per gallon. What a difference a year makes!
A year ago you who were a fellowship of believers organized yourselves into a church. Only a year ago there were just a few of you, but you had a vision, you knew the need, you exercised your faith, and today look at you! Pastor Adrien has told me of all that the Lord has done among you – the baptisms, the growth, those who have committed themselves to work with children, the health fair, all that you are doing. What a difference a year makes! What a wonderful, joyful difference! It is one year toward eternity.
In the New Testament, in the Book of Acts, I found a story that I believe illustrates your one year pilgrimage and reminds us of what a difference just one year can make. It is the story of the gathering of a new church in Antioch and of the impact they made on the world.
Notice, first, that the church in Antioch was started by people who had fled from persecution. In Jerusalem, the center of the early Christian movement, there had been an explosion of violence, and it had caught Stephen the deacon in its trap. Stephen became the first person to die for his Christian faith. But the enemies of the church were not content with taking the life of Stephen; they were after more blood. They wanted to smash this young Jesus movement before it could spread. And so violence, hatred, persecution. The believers had no choice but to scatter – to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. It was no easy thing to move to a new place, a new culture, a new language. It was a difficult, wrenching move.
Many of you know what that is about. Some of you are exiles. Some of you did not choose to leave your native lands; you left because you felt the iron hand of political oppression. Some of you chose to leave, but it was a reluctant choice, for you knew that in order for you to get an education, you would have to leave; in order for you to feed your families, you would have to move; in order for you to live out your dreams, you would have to turn your backs on your homelands. And so you did. Not an easy thing to do.
But you came to the United States, the land of immigrants. Almost all of us have ancestors who came here from other places and for reasons that were not pleasant. My English and Welsh ancestors came because they sought religious freedom. My German-Hessian ancestors came because they were poor and thought that they could make a new start in America – which they did, after they ran away from King George’s hired army and got a grant of land from the new American nation. The Irish came because of crop failures, the Poles and the Russians came because they were starving and, particularly if they were Jewish, they were persecuted. And the Africans came – ah, you know how the Africans came; it remains a shame and a blight on our history that the Africans came compelled to be slaves. But even that makes my point – that you have come to a nation that, in its history, does understand that if people want to breathe free air, they must sometimes leave home.
And so I would guess that many of you, like those first believers who ran to Antioch, came here and braved a new world, a new culture, a different language, all sorts of financial and cultural challenges. You would have preferred to stay at home; but you could not.