Fifty years ago a band of dedicated servants of the Lord, meeting at Lime Creek Lutheran Church near Lake Mills, Iowa, adopted the following introductory resolution: “We, members present, of the Synod for the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, ministers, delegates of congregations and members of congregations, join together for the purpose of continuing the work of the Synod on the old basis and according to the old principles.”
The calm and unhurried wording of this resolution gives little hint of the great struggle that had preceded its adoption in the years leading up to the “Merger,” or of the great struggle that would necessarily be theirs because of such a resolution. But true Christianity is never maintained without a struggle, for our Lord has clearly shown that His Church in this world is a militant group which must forever be prepared for warfare against the devil, the world and the flesh. This qualification never changes, so if we think that our battles are all behind us, we had better let the Lord call us to attention once again, that we might hold the sword of the Spirit ready at all times.
If there is little pathos revealed in the bare wording of that initial resolution, the opening sermon preached by the first president of the Synod, Pastor Bjug Harstad, gives testimony to the storm that had swept over the countryside: “We are, as it were, clustering around the old building site which is storm-swept and waste. A destructive hurricane has swept away the dear old mansion, even taking with it most of them that dwelt there. Discouraged, looking around, we discover only the bare ground with wreckage and dangerous crossroads. Yet let us not be too much alarmed or discouraged. Worse things have repeatedly happened to the church before this, without its being destroyed. Let us remember and follow these words of Jeremiah, the prophet: ‘Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.’ Jeremiah 6, 16.”*
So this was no call to panic, nor to a premature martyrdom, but a summons to follow the Lord God. Preaching on the basis of the account of God’s call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1–4), Pastor Harstad reminded his redoubtable colleagues how they were to walk in the good way and how they were to be strengthened for that walk. Comparing God’s call to this reorganizing group to God’s call of Abraham, the speaker said: “Let us spend the days of our pilgrimage in faith and reliance on every word of our Lord, implicitly obeying it whether we understand where it leads to or not. What we are called to believe and do is by no means so contrary to reason and the order of nature as that which was told Abraham, and by which he was tempted. To be sure, we are few and poor, compared with many others. But let us beware of this question: What can a remnant like us do? Is it really by our own might and ability we intend to succeed on our journey? Is it the power and importance of man that we are to depend on, and by which we expect to work? Then we had better quit now! Abraham would then have returned to the kingdom of Nimrod, to Nineveh and Babylon. No, these with all their pompous glory he must leave, in order to escape the snares and temptations of sinful flesh. By faith Abraham understood that not human wisdom and power, but only the work and grace of God could make him and the generations of the earth happy.”*
In 1968 we are commemorating this event of a half century ago, an event which was remarkable not so much for the bravery of the people who there resolved to continue in the old paths as for the grace of God which led them to this course of action. For the passage of time, with its many developments and revelations, has vindicated the action of a despised minority in 1918. Because it was the Lord’s will to which they were obedient, their undertaking could not fail, and we today, as beneficiaries of their labors, rejoice in our inheritance.
During this 51st regular convention of our Synod there will undoubtedly be much reminiscing concerning the events of the first half-century of the reorganized Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The sermons, the essays, the devotions, the discussion from the floor will an help to remind us of our rich heritage, for it is a heritage of God’s grace. As we sound the trumpet of jubilee, may it not be to “blow our own horn” in a spirit of vanity and false pride, but rather to show forth the praises of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. The salvation of the righteous is still of the Lord alone, and we must confess that we, too, are unworthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which God has shown to us.
Our unworthiness does not exempt us from a diligent use of God’s blessings, however. The plaintive question of the humbled Saul, who asked, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” must continue to be heard from our lips, for we have been freed in order to serve our Lord Jesus Christ. If a jubilee celebration is, in a sense, a pause in our earthly race, it is only to catch our breath, that we may the more resolutely, and with renewed energy and zeal, press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:14). There is as much need today for our dedication to the program of the Lord our God as there was need for it in the days of our fathers. There is still great need of preserving the truth and proclaiming it. The opportunities are not lacking. Let us not be found wanting. May the Lord of the Church, and of our synodical history, give us the vision to see the opportunities, the wisdom to plan for the work thus created, and the perseverance to carry out these plans.
And, finally, whatever we do in word or deed, let us do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him, to whom alone be glory and praise in time and eternity. Such a course of action will in itself constitute a loud note on the trumpet of jubilee. Hallelujah! Amen.
* Quotations from the 1918 Synod Report.