Greetings in the name of our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to all gathered here at the 2003 convention where we observe the 150th anniversary of the founding of the old Norwegian Synod.
The theme for our convention this year may seem a little unusual to any not familiar with the history of our synod. Why the use of Psalm 78:19, “Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?” This verse served as the text for the sermon preached at the first Communion service of the Norwegian Lutheran immigrants settling near the area of Madison, Wisconsin. The date was 1844, and nine years later came the official organization of the Norwegian Lutheran Synod, the predecessor church body of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod today.
No matter what your personal family heritage, no matter what country your grandparents, great-grandparents or great-great grandparents called home before settling in this land of great opportunity with spacious skies and amber waves of grain, our theme has an important message for you and me living in the year 2003. Aren’t you and I, who are privileged first and foremost to be confessing Christians and then secondarily to be identified as members and friends of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod, proof that God surely has furnished a bountiful table in an unlikely place? Is not the evangelical spirit that God pours into our hearts to speak his Word to others—especially that message of redemption through faith in Christ—evidence that sustenance exists in what otherwise is barren wasteland? Can we not say that the unity we enjoy in proclaiming Christ crucified and in confessing boldly the truths of Holy Scripture before a godless society is a clear demonstration of a nourishing table furnished by our benevolent God?
Psalm 78 presents the history of the people of Israel. Rebellion was rampant. Our theme question originally was raised in defiance and mockery. The Israelites, wearied and worn from wilderness travel, wailed against the manna God miraculously set before them. “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4–6) This was the climate in which they jeeringly asked the question. Verse 19 reads: “They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?’” The writer of this psalm explains what prompted their question: “… they did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance” (v. 22). But God did provide for them in spite of their obstinacy and apostasy. In his mercy he provided quail. But there was more—much more. In verse 38 of this same psalm a sweet melody breaks forth amidst chaotic dissonance: “Yet he was merciful; he atoned for their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath.”
How do we compare to those rugged and ragged days of Israel’s defiance? How do we measure ourselves to the small group of Norwegians Lutherans standing under the oaks in 1844 as they pondered that question in Psalm 78? Dare we, like Israel of old, ever imagine that the Lord’s arm is too short?
Pictures of the dry, dusty war-torn desert region of Iraq are fresh in our memories. Remember the desert–the wilderness–from which we all have come. Look even now at the wilderness surrounding our own personal feet dangling under the table of God’s goodness and mercy. We, like our ancestors from the past, are sinners through and through. We have deserved nothing but punishment from the courtroom of God’s justice. How could we ever hope to stand in the presence of his holiness, when we see our violations of his holy law? The parched desert areas around us can offer no help–a cultural landscape advocating religious pluralism, a world absorbed with materialism, a generation hungering for fulfillment but not having the foggiest notion where to turn for guidance, a plethora of religious leaders teeming with advice on correcting social ills yet offering no solid remedy for man’s greatest ailment. As a synod, too, we have to say: Had all depended on our own strength, wisdom and striving, we would have been deceived and led into unbelief and despair and all kinds of false doctrine and ungodly life.
But you and I too–like the Dietrichson group at Koshkonong, like the remnant of believers in the Sinai wilderness–have been led to see what God has put on the table. The words of Isaiah have come to fruition: “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and bloom” (Isaiah 35:1). The glory of the Lord has appeared. We have, by the grace of God the Holy Spirit, been led to trust that our Lord has been so merciful that he sent his only-begotten Son to make atonement for all of our sins, and that he promises eternal life in heaven to all who believe. With the eyes of faith we have been privileged to watch how God so loved us that he did not spare his own Son. This was the only way to have forgiveness on the table. His very body and blood shed for the remission of sins is what accomplished the unthinkable: that God’s justice against us and our sins should be met fully and completely by means of the substitute sacrifice of his Son. In the courtroom of God’s justice mercy now prevails because his Son took the rap. Sinners–you and me and all–have been declared righteous because he experienced the full brunt of God’s wrath against sin in our place. Here we especially see how long the Lord’s arm really is! The apostle John writes: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9, 10).
The massive oaks at Koshkonong are no longer there. But the table is. Truly, it is God alone who has furnished the table. On that table especially are his Means of Grace–the word of the Gospel, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Here is the way he has provided for the spiritual nourishment for our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Here also is the way we can expect him to sustain us today. Sin, Satan, death and hell swarm around us, but–as David penned in the 23rd Psalm, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” (v. 5). In Christ we find the fulfillment of the promise recorded by the prophet Jeremiah: “The people…will find favor in the desert; I will come to give rest to Israel” (Jeremiah 31:2).
Our synod today regards itself as the rightful heir to the doctrinal theology espoused by the old Norwegian Synod as it was led by men such as Rev. H. A. Preus, Dr. U. V. Koren and Rev. Jacob Aal Ottesen. This is why we celebrate the 150 years. We use the occasion not to gloat or boast in lineage, nor to look at the past only for history’s sake. We take the opportunity to praise and thank God for his bountiful blessings. We join the psalmist in saying, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his loves endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations” (Psalm 100:4, 5).
What can we learn from our synodical ancestors? If we observe what they dearly treasured, might it influence our priorities and emphases today? Can we learn from their zeal, as we seek to reach more and more of all races, languages and backgrounds with the saving Gospel of Christ? Do we appreciate their devout study of God’s Word, their love for worship and hymn singing, and their diligence in prayer?
Pastor Ferkenstad in his essay scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday will give us much to ponder and discuss. Here, too, I wish to highlight a number of things we as a synod can glean from a glimpse at the past. I will classify them as six snapshots.
Snapshot #1: The leading role of the doctrine of justification
A hallmark of the old synod that we pray is evident among us today is that God in Christ has declared the whole world forgiven on account of the perfect life, suffering, death and resurrection of our Savior. This is plainly taught in 2 Corinthians 5, where we read “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (v. 19). During the time of the Absolution Controversy (1860s), our forefathers sounded a clear trumpet on this quintessential teaching from Holy Scripture. Dr. U.V. Koren, for example, explained: “It became clear here that our opponents did not want to admit that the contents of the Gospel and the essence of absolution are always the same, independent of the condition of the person to whom they come. We taught that the forgiveness of sin in absolution did not come into existence first when a person believed, but that absolution is always forgiveness of sin by God, even though the one who does not believe refuses God’s gift and thus does not become a partaker of it” (Faith of Our Fathers, p. 101).
May we continually hold this great truth before our people. Pulpits in our synod Sunday after Sunday ought to project this comfort into the ears and hearts of sinners. A proper understanding and use of the sacraments directly relates to a correct exposition of justification. Confidence of a sinner’s right standing with the Almighty comes only this way. We want to reaffirm Dr. S.C. Ylvisaker’s summation of objective justification, when he in 1955 by personal letter comforted his family with these words: “The Bible doctrine is simply that when Christ died for our sins, i.e., for the sins of the whole world…God declared the whole world forgiven (justified) and now God wants us to believe this. Others say: ‘Believe, and thou shalt be justified.’ God says: ‘Believe that thou hast been justified.’ And the thing is as simple as that–but what a difference when death stares a person in the face” (Sigurd Christian Ylvisaker 1884–1959, p. 53).
Snapshot #2: The crucial nature of confessional unity
In his opening address to the 1865 convention, Rev. H. A. Preus felt the need to dispel the idea on the part of some that efforts to revise the synod’s constitution would be a kind of “cure-all” for the synod. “We do not believe that a constitution can create or reform a congregation or church body. The Spirit of God alone can do that through the Word of the Lord and the Sacraments. Through them He regenerates people’s heart and works and preserves faith in them… All errors, aberrations and imperfections in the church can be corrected and set right only thorough the Word of God being taught purely and in its entirety… When people therefore…turn their eyes first and foremost to the constitution question and expect a glorious future from the adoption of this or that constitution, then they only display thereby how far they have come away from the Word of God, the solid main pillar of the church” (Built on the Rock, p. 34).
Not a unity based on a constitution, nor a unity based on polity, but a unity grounded immovably in the truths of Scripture as confessed also by the Lutheran Church in its Book of Concord is the vital component of a true and vibrant church body. By God’s grace, this realization has been carried over to succeeding generations, generations that had to contend faithfully for the doctrine of church fellowship during very difficult times. We pray that all future generations heed the standing call of the “Triple U”:
“We acknowledge one, and only one, truly unifying influence and power in matters both of doctrine and practice, namely the Word of God, and only one God-pleasing procedure in striving for unity: That ‘the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as children of God lead holy lives according to it’” (“Unity, Union and Unionism,” 1936).
Our synod has had its share of doctrinal controversies over the years. The doctrine of the public ministry is currently under study. As we struggle to confess in clear language only what Scripture teaches, rejoice in knowing that we are bound together with fellow brothers and sisters who desire to walk in unity, pledging themselves to Holy Scripture as the only source and norm of all truth. Checking the abundance of ecumenical church bodies rampant with higher criticism, should we not be extremely grateful for the harmony we enjoy in our own synod as we work together all the more to speak with one voice?
Snapshot #3: The search for mission opportunities
The founding fathers of our present ELS gave immediate attention to preaching the gospel beyond the limits of their local congregations. Already in 1918 a new home mission in Chicago received support, and in 1920 efforts were made to further the Gospel in China and India through representation in the joint work of the Synodical Conference.
We are celebrating this year 35 years of work in Peru and 10 years of work in Chile. Are we constantly keeping these mission fields in our prayers? Can we do more? Might we be able to open another new field in 5–10 years, such as one in Korea or in another country where the door appears open? The time also seems ripe for exploring to a greater degree the burgeoning opportunities to spread the Gospel among Hispanics–both at home and abroad. And should we not also grab the chance to bring God’s Word to the millions of people living in spiritual darkness under the Muslim umbrella?
Who knows how much time we have left? We see the fulfillment of many of the signs of the end times: wars, earthquakes, false prophets, false Christs, increase of wickedness, lovelessness, etc. Are we not moved to ask, “Is the Lord still planning to use me, to use my church, to use my synod to reach one more lost soul with the Good News of Christ the Savior?” Peter writes: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Snapshot #4: The sacrificial spirit for the sake of Christian education
Although some may question our claim of being the true historical heirs to the old Norwegian Synod, it has been duly noted that we are justified in making the claim—not least of all—because of the strong support for Lutheran elementary schools. Proportionately at the reorganization in 1918 our synod had more Christian day schools than ever was to be found in the old synod. President Preus told the Norwegian Synod in 1875: “As I see it, a thoroughly Christian educational system is the chief of all conditions for a church body’s health and development in this country. But the gross neglect thereof, in a non-Christian, irreligious, more or less worldly-minded training of our children and youth, I see the decay and destruction of our beloved church within a few generations” (quoted in the1928 Synod Report).
Has some of the vigor and steam of our forefather’s resolve to expend their time and efforts and resources on church schools escaped our vision today? Not every congregation is in a position to operate its own school, but could there be more churches in our synod where the idea and implementation of a Lutheran elementary school should be fostered? A memorial from one of our congregations to this year’s convention helps highlight the urgency. Remember, it also was urgency and sacrifice for the sake of Christian education, when Pastor George A. Gullixson in 1927 raised his hand and said, ‘I move that we take over the school.” What a great challenge for a small synod to assume the purchase and control of a bankrupt ladies’ college under the beloved name of Bethany. What dedication to emulate!
Snapshot #5: The appreciation of our heritage
In recounting the story of the immigration of Norwegians to America, S.C. Ylvisaker in Grace for Grace gives us a window into the poor, simple pioneer homes of those who settled in our land in the 1840s and 1850s. He describes them as “people who had been intimately connected with the Church in the homeland, and they brought with them greater respect and love for the rites and usages of the Church of their fathers. Therefore, when the divinely appointed moment came and the Lord sent His messengers to gather them about the means of grace, the seed thus sown fell in good and fertile soil” (p. 15).
Yesterday we had the privilege of dedicating a new museum for our synod. Let us appreciate our heritage. Let us see why our forefathers did the things they did in organizing the old synod, and why they cherished certain liturgical customs. If they appreciated their heritage, how much more shouldn’t we cherish the heritage they have left us? But may it all be to the glory of God alone and in no way to the glory of man.
A dear and deeply respected friend of the old synod, Dr. C.F.W. Walther of Missouri, once stated that a major duty of a truly Evangelical Lutheran church body is that “it seek not its own glory but only the glory of God, being intent not so much on its own growth but rather on the growth of Christ’s kingdom and the salvation of souls” (Essays for the Church, II, p. 7).
Understand especially that it is the doctrinal heritage we cherish. Only when a body of people is bound and guided by the Word can it be a blessing to other individuals, to other groups, to other languages and races around the globe, focusing attention on our one, all-embracing Redeemer. To that end, may we as a synod truly appreciate our roots, whether of lutefisk ilk or otherwise!
Snapshot #6: The devotional attitude of gratitude and prayer
When the Norwegian immigrants arrived, many of their ornate wooden chests contained a Bible, Luther’s Small Catechism, a hymnbook and possibly a devotional such as Bishop Laache’s Book of Family Prayer. These were not simply packed away as mementos. A healthy devotional life and prayer life characterized the homes of many of the early settlers.
Can the homes of our synod today be described as devotional? Appreciation for the Lutheran doctrine of the Means of Grace naturally ought to move all of us to a healthy devotional life. Through the use of his Word, God the Holy Spirit brings the needed spiritual strength to our souls. May God grant that the old, God-pleasing institution of family devotions be retained and expanded in the households of our synod.
The Lord has richly blessed our synod. Thinking of his gracious providence these past 150 years, we have much for which to give thanks. Look at all that God has placed on the table. We have not deserved it. The wilderness setting remains. Yet, what gifts God has given to equip us for meeting every challenge and opportunity still ahead for our ELS!
John A. Moldstad, president