Do unfinished projects bother you? I have to confess to you that unfinished projects drive me crazy. I tend to be more task-oriented; I love to cross things off the to-do list; so nothing irritates me more than an unfinished project.
I’ll never forget the first time I went with one of our groups on a mission trip to the Baja. You see all these houses up and down the Baja peninsula; just brick-o-block and rebar. They’re just sitting there, unfinished. I was later told that people build until the money runs out, then they move on, leaving behind all these unfinished structures.
Do you remember all the problems they had a few years ago when they built the new jail? Construction on the new Madison County high-rise jail began in April 2004. But construction problems, lawsuits, and cost overruns delayed its opening and caused the price tag to escalate. Final sticker price was $50 million OVER budget. And as some of these issues were resolved, the jail just sat there unfinished and empty for quite a while. At the time, Mayor Tommy Battle called it “the most expensive and challenging project in Huntsville history.”
We’ve reached the point in our study of The Story where the people of God might have felt a bit like an unfinished project. If our Story ended right here, that’d be a fair assessment. God’s people have a great foundation that has been laid: promises made to Abraham; leadership of Moses and Joshua; the reign of David.
But at this point, those all seem like a distant memory. For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about the sad circumstances of idolatry and wickedness that led to the fall of the two kingdoms.
- 722 BC – northern kingdom falls to Assyria
- 586 BC – Jerusalem falls to the Babylonians
God’s people have been vacated from the promised land. They were told that a descendant of David would reign on the throne forever. But how do you explain this idea when your people are enslaved? “Are we an abandoned building, a forgotten project? Has God forgotten about us?”
It would be easy to understand if the Hebrew people were to ask these kinds of questions.
But after 70 years of exile, something happens that changes the fortunes of the Jews living in Babylon. The Persians overthrow the Babylonians and the new king, Cyrus, issues a decree.
Ezra 1:1-3, The Lord moves the heart of Cyrus, king of Perisa, who commissions the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. A generation has passed; now is the time to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple of the Lord.
God is sovereign. He has not abandoned his “project”.
Ezra 3:1-6, Joshua and Zerubbabel begin to rebuild the altar of the Lord. V3, “Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices.”
Fear was a reality. God’s people find themselves surrounded by those who are going to oppose their work. But the people of God never give in to fear. One of the most common commands in Scripture is the command for God’s people to not be afraid. Fear not. Be strong and courageous and never afraid.
Do you remember what comes next? For I am with you.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Why? How is that even possible? For you are with me.
Even when they’re surrounded by these foes, God’s people do not fall to their fears. Instead, they rely on the power and presence of God!
One of Satan’s greatest tools is fear. Plenty of unfinished spiritual projects stalled out because of fear. What about you? Are you an unfinished project? Has your spiritual growth stymied because of fear? Now, none of us has arrived; in a sense, we’re all a work in progress…that’s not what I’m talking about.
What I’m asking is this: Has fear stunted my spiritual growth? How is Satan using fear to keep you from becoming the man or woman he wants you to be?
God knew this would be a major issue for us; that’s why He talks about fear so much in His Word.
Look at what happens when these people lay the foundation of the temple:
Ezra 3:10-13, As the foundation to the temple is laid, the Levites sing, “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” God’s goodness and enduring love become the refrain for His people at this time.
V11, their song consists of praise and thanksgiving. We’ve already been told that the people were afraid. But they made a willful choice — made the choice to praise, made the choice to express thanksgiving.
When you fill your life with praise and thanksgiving, you have less time to fixate on your fears.
If Satan can’t get you with fear, then he’ll try some other tactics.
Look at Ezra 4:1-5, Enemies of Judah come and ask if they could help.
2 Kings 17:24-28 tells about how the king of Assyria sent people to populate the land of Samaria (the northern kingdom) after the Israelites were taken captive. But they didn’t fear the Lord, so God sent lions into the land, which devoured some of these wicked people. So the king sends back one of the prophets to go and teach the people about worship of God. But these people also worship false gods; considered “enemies” of true Judaism. Remember this later…Jesus is going to tell a story about a Samaritan that plays on this history.
The leaders of the rebuilding project reject the help of these Samaritans. V4 – “Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.” These adversaries sabotage the temple-rebuilding project. They hold it up for about 6 yrs; construction stops completely for another 10 yrs.
So for the next several years, the temple of the Lord sits unfinished. This unfinished structure is a testimony to the deadly combination of fear and discouragement.
We must understand why the temple was so important: it was the key symbol of Israel’s religious tradition. It represented everything that made Israel distinct. It symbolized their history and their faith. To cease rebuilding amounted to abandoning God’s restoration agenda. The people of God let a few naysayers derail God’s agenda to rebuild the temple and, more importantly, to mold Judah into the kind of people He wanted them to be.
How many great projects have fallen by the wayside because of discouragement?
How many Christian leaders never reach their potential because of discouragement?
How many of us never become who God wants us to be because we continue to carry around the residue of past discouragements?
Have you allowed discouragement to get the best of you? This has happened to God’s people. And we see it in our own lives, too:
Notice the progressive nature of discouragement:
When we’re discouraged, we’re easily disillusioned.
When we’re disillusioned, we’re easily distracted.
When we’re distracted, it’s easy for us to disengage.
What’s the counter to discouragement? It sounds simplistic, but the counter to discouragement is encouragement. Discourage – to have the heart taken out. Encourage – to put heart into, to pour courage into another.
At this moment in Judah’s history, God sends two prophets to be sources of encouragement for the people.
Haggai – the older prophet. He’s old enough to remember the former temple. He shows up in 520 BC and calls the people to finish the job of temple restoration.
Haggai 1:2-6, This is what the LORD Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.’ The word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”
You focus on your own house while the temple remains unfinished? Their sacrificial devotion has been replaced by self-interest. They arrived back home with a profound sense of mission — but a bit of discouragement festered its way into their hearts.
Remember the progressive nature of discouragement?
– Discouragement leads to disillusionment
– Disillusionment leads to distraction
– Distraction leads to disengagement
Haggai’s message jolts the people out of their apathy and energizes them to God’s presence once again.
At the same time, the prophet Zechariah begins to preach a powerful and vivid message. Whereas Haggai focuses on the need for Judah to trust God in the present by renewing the commitment to build the temple, Zechariah encourages the people to look to the glory of God to be revealed in future Messiah.
Zech. 9:9-10, Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey….He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Someday, one is coming who will fully complete the work of the LORD. God’s people will feel like an unfinished project until this Messiah arrives…the same Messiah who, at his death, will look to God and say, “It is finished.”
God is Sovereign. He doesn’t abandon His projects.
He has not abandoned you.