In October of 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space -- Sputnik. Russian scientists were thrilled at their achievement, even though they lost contact only 22 days later. In November of the same year, the Soviets launched another satellite -- this time, with the first living creature ever to orbit the Earth -- Laika, a Siberian husky-mix dog. Again, Russian scientists patted themselves on the back -- in only two months they proved that they could send a man-made object into space and that living creatures could survive in orbit! It was a technological marvel, and the world’s scientists were in awe.
Most of the world, anyway.
The Americans were not impressed -- they were supposed to be first! The United States was supposed to be the world’s leader in technology and freedom, and they were beaten into space by the Godless communists that all of the political leaders of the time told them to hate? That just can’t be!
Well, the space program had already started development on a satellite in 1955, so they hurried to finish so they could launch before the end of the year. Only two months after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, the United States prepared the Vanguard satellite for launch. They invited reporters from all over the world -- including the Soviet Union -- to see their amazing accomplishment.
It didn't exactly go well. The rocket made it a whole 4 feet off of the ground before falling straight back down and exploding. The United States was humiliated again -- in fact, just a few days later, the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations asked if the United States was interested in receiving aid from the Soviet Union specifically reserved for “underdeveloped countries”. Yikes.
The United States was the laughingstock of the world. So, like anyone would in the face of humiliation, they got to work. In 1958 we successfully launched Explorer I, a reconstructed Vanguard satellite, Explorer III, Explorer IV, Pioneer I, and SCORE (the world’s first communications satellite). We kept launching rockets, learning as we went. In 1961, President Kennedy gave a speech to Congress, where he said the famous words: “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Of course, you guys all know how it ends -- in 1969 the United States was the first (and only) nation to successfully land a man on the moon and bring him back.
It would have been entirely too easy for us to give up after the failure in 1957, or the 18 failures in 1958, or the 9 failures in 1959, or the 13 failures in 1960…
The Americans working in the space program did not quit. Neither did the Israelites, though they tried to for a season. Last week we discussed the book of Haggai, where God sends his prophet Haggai to encourage the Israelites to continue building the temple. This week, we’re looking at the same historical event, but through the messages God gives to the prophet Zechariah.
The book of Zechariah can be split into two parts -- each one full of encouragement for the Israelites and their governor, Zerubbabel. The first part of Zechariah takes place at the same time as the book of Haggai -- chapters 1-8 is Zechariah encouraging the Israelites to continue rebuilding God’s temple in Jerusalem. We already know that story. Chapters 9 through 14, though, are meant to act as an encouragement to the Israelites after the temple was completed.
See, in many ways, the Israelites are like the Americans of the late 1950s. They were “God’s chosen people”, they expected to always get the best things in life thanks to that special status. But soon they were humiliated -- conquered again and again by one foreign nation after another. Finally, King Darius of the Persians decides to “allow” them to return to their homeland, even though they would still be subject to his rule. They needed permission to go home! This sounds an awful lot like what the Soviet ambassador said when he referred to the United States as an “underdeveloped nation”. The Israelites were being mocked through the use of polite words.
When they get back to their homeland, they start building the temple. But they stop -- it’s just too difficult. They got ahead of themselves, they say. We need to take care of our own families first, then we can go back to the temple. They’ve failed! This is like the attempted launch of the Vanguard rocket -- the temple only rose a few feet, then just stopped, hard.
At this point Haggai and Zechariah come into the picture. The Lord speaks through Haggai and Zechariah to encourage the people to continue on their mission to rebuild the temple. Then, He gives them several promises in Zechariah chapter 8:
“3This is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the City of Truth, and the mountain of the Lord Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain.’ 4This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with cane in hand because of his age. 5The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.’ 6This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?’ declares the Lord Almighty. 7This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. 8I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.’ 9This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘You who now hear these words spoken by the prophets who were there when the foundation was laid for the house of the Lord Almighty, let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built. 10Before that time there were no wages for man or beast. No one could go about his business safely because of his enemy, for I had turned every man against his neighbor. 11But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”
When Zechariah said this, the some of the people thought that God said that He would send His presence to Jerusalem to dwell as soon as the temple was completed. This isn’t a completely crazy idea -- after all, the presence of the Lord dwelt with the people in the Ark of the Covenant for generations. And, the prophecy itself says that once the temple is finished, God will not treat his people the same way; that everything will be better, right?
Well, yes; it does say that. But it doesn’t say it in the way they thought. See, the Israelites thought that the prophecy said that as soon as the temple was finished, God would enter. Like they put the final brick into place, and woosh! God’s there. Sounds awesome, right? Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work that way. God’s presence didn’t physically enter Jerusalem until Jesus came; that was almost 500 years later! God kept his promise.
What the Israelites forgot was that God never said it would happen immediately after the temple was finished -- he just said that it wouldn’t happen until the temple was finished. That’s an important distinction. That is just like when President Kennedy gave his speech to Congress. He challenged (and Congress accepted) for us to go to the moon -- and return safely -- before the end of the decade. He gave that speech in 1961. 1962 comes and goes; 1963 comes and goes; 1964 comes and goes. We have disaster after disaster -- the Mercury-Redstone I launch failure, the Apollo I fire. Finally, in July of 1969 we make it to the moon -- with only 5 months to spare.
Congress kept their promise to President Kennedy -- we made it to the moon, and brought all three astronauts safely back to earth -- before January 1, 1970. Barely. I’m sure everyone wanted it to happen sooner. While we were building up to the moon, the Soviets had the first man in space, the first man to orbit the earth, and the first woman in space. It sure seemed like we were losing the “space race”. When Neil Armstron and Buzz Aldrin stepped foot on the moon, though, the space race was essentially over. We had won.
When Jesus was born, the waiting was over. God had won.
God’s promises were fulfilled. When God promises you something, it may not happen immediately. In fact, it probably won’t happen immediately. But keep working at it. Don’t be like the Israelites and just give up -- be like the engineers at NASA -- continuously work towards the promise that God has given you. Have faith. Trust in God. His promise will come.