When I was just starting seminary back in 1976, there was a national evangelistic campaign that featured yellow bumper stickers that boldly announced “I found it!” “It” was salvation – redemption, the forgiveness of sins, life eternal and abundant. On the bulletin board outside the dining hall where students posted announcements and advertisements, someone plastered one of these yellow “I found it!” bumper stickers, and others in the community took this as an invitation to comment, a chance to come up with some facetious slogans of their own. It started innocently enough with a simple question– “What is it?” That got the ball rolling. “If you find it, please turn it into the office immediately,” one said, and that was followed with a – “No, I found it — it’s mine now.” “Well, if you found it, then you can have it because I don’t want it!” was answered with – “Well, you may have found it, but I never lost it.” And so it went day after day until finally one day someone posted – “He found me.”
Dr. George Eldon Ladd, the world class New Testament scholar who taught at that school was famous for saying that the only truly “new element” in Jesus Christ’s teachings about God was that He was a “seeking God” — a God who “takes the initiative to seek out the sinner, to bring the lost into the blessing of His reign” (80). The Pharisees of Jesus’ day taught that while God “was always [at least theoretically] willing to take the first step towards us, that in actual practice the initiative was almost always left up to the sinner to return to God.” The people in Jesus’ day thought that it was up to them to find God, but Jesus Christ said that it’s God who actually comes to find us, so that whoever posted – “He found me!” –clearly understood Dr. Ladd’s point. In fact, I sometimes wondered if it wasn’t Dr. Ladd himself who posted it! And where Dr. Ladd said that he found this great truth of God seeking the sinner most clearly was in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. There are three parables about God seeking and saving the lost in Luke chapter 15. The first one is the Parable of the Lost Lamb. And the truth that this parable firmly establishes is the idea that what gets lost gets sought! The shepherd doesn’t scold, or shame, or spank his little lamb for getting lost; no, he just went after it and brought it back home again joyfully.
Jonathan Dahl’s father died 30 years ago. On his death bed, Jonathan’s father made a final request of him. “Find Jeff” he said. Jeff was the oldest boy in the Dahl family, and he had vanished one hot August afternoon six years before his father died. Strung out on drugs after years of failed rehabs, Jeff exploded when his parents refused to give him $35. He smashed some furniture, kicked in a car door, and threatened to burn down the house. His father told him to leave, to just go and not come back. And Jeff did. He left and had not been seen or heard from by anybody in his family after that day. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Jeff was the oldest and brightest son of an IBM executive who lived in Darien, Connecticut. Jeff was absolutely adored by his kid brother Jonathan. Jeff was the kind of big brother who would stop to tie his little brother’s shoes at the bus stop, sit with him during lunch in the school cafeteria, and play with him after school. Jeff was a good athlete and a great student. Some of his poems were published when he was still in Middle School. He won trophies for swimming and tennis. He had a steady girlfriend and a full tuition scholarship to college. Jeff Dahl was every parent’s dream, the picture of success. He was bright, popular, and gifted — a kid full of promise.
It was when he was a freshman at college that Jeff began experimenting with drugs. It changed him. He became moody and withdrawn, disinterested and unmotivated. To buy drugs he started stealing things. He got into trouble with the law, and that’s when he began an endless cycle of drug treatment programs. During one of these hospitalizations he was diagnosed with a mental illness that’s characterized by uncontrollable urges and sudden emotional outbursts. But the doctors weren’t really sure if Jeff’s behavioral problems were caused by his drug problem or by his mental illness. They said they needed Jeff to be drug free for six months to know for sure. Jeff never was drug free for six months.
Jeff was 27 years old when he got kicked out of the family. Later, when things calmed down a bit, Jeff’s father regretted what he’d said to him. He knew that if Jeff had cancer, or had become a paraplegic, that he would never have thrown him out. But Jeff was gone. He’d vanished without a trace. And then Jeff’s dad got sick himself, and as he lay dying, he made his final request – “Find Jeff.”
The burden of this request fell squarely on Jonathan’s shoulders, Jeff’s little brother. A writer for the Wall Street Journal who travelled the country chasing stories, Jonathan was in the best position to conduct the search. And so Jonathan would add an extra day or two onto every trip he took for business so that he could poke around the kind of places where homeless people were likely to be known – shelters, police stations, public libraries, churches with ministries to street people. Flashing Jeff’s picture to the people in those places, Jonathan would ask, “Do you know him?” “Have you seen him?” In every city he visited, Jonathan would call every Jeff Dahl he found listed in the phone book, hoping against hope that he might just accidently stumble upon his brother. At one homeless shelter he visited somebody finally recognized Jeff’s picture and told him that he thought that he’d gone to Colorado with some friends. Jonathan booked the first flight to Denver he could find. When he got there, Jonathan tracked down the mother of one of Jeff’s friends, and he got the name of a clerk at an X rated bookstore who know Jeff really well. After a long conversation with that guy late into the night, Jonathan finally got a phone number, and he sensed that his long search was nearly over.
Jonathan drove around Denver the rest of that night in his rented car waiting for the sun to come up. At dawn he found a pay phone at a convenience store and punched in the number that he had been given. The phone rang once, twice, three times. Finally a groggy voice answered – “Yeah,” it said, “What do you want?” Jonathan panicked and hung up without saying a word. It was Jeff’s voice. He’d done it. He’d found his brother. But after all the years, through all the pain, what was he going to say? He dialed the number again, and when it got picked up at the other end, Jonathan quickly said, “Jeff, this is your brother Jonathan. I love you. We miss you. Please come home.” There was a long pause, and the sound of sobbing.
Luke 19:10 is one of the Gospel’s purpose statements, Jesus telling His disciples why He’d come and what He was there to do – “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” This verse is the punch line to the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho who climbed up in a Sycamore tree to try to see Jesus who was passing by that day. Zacchaeus was “lost.” He’d betrayed his people, denied his identity, and sold his soul. It had made him rich, and it had left him isolated, inhabiting the margins of society, estranged from his people and their God.
Jonathan Parnell takes Zacchaeus climbing up the tree to get to Jesus as a symbol of all the ways that we as human beings try to get right with God in our own strength and by our own effort. It’s popular to talk about the spiritual life as a ladder that we have got to climb in order to get into God’s presence and to win God’s favor. “Religion tells us to seek. We are advised to climb trees like Zacchaeus, to depend upon our own exertion for any hope of ascending to the divine. We are told to bridge the gap by our effort. If you want salvation, they say, seek it.” And then one day Jesus comes to town and says, “Hurry up and come down” (19:5). He’s the seeker. He’s the Savior. Zacchaeus didn’t find Jesus by climbing up the tree. Jesus found Zacchaeus by telling him to come down out of the tree and going home with him. “Our seeking – our trying to reach the divine on our own – is silenced when we learn that the divine has reached down to us… by becoming one of us. Here we are, spinning our wheels in hopes of getting to God, and then God… comes to get us.
“Lost” doesn’t mean “worthless” but “wanted.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “passed over” but “pursued.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “inferior” but “valuable.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “loathed” but “loved.”
“The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve gotten yourself off to, whatever you’ve gotten yourself into, He’ll come. He’s already looking for you. And when He finds you, what He’s going to say is – “I love you. We miss you. Please come home.” DBS+