Lost in the Woods
Mike Vilhauer just wanted to catch some fish, but on August 6, 2014, the 58-year-old from Sacramento wandered off the trail into the mountain wilderness to look for grasshoppers he could use as live bait. It took a while, but his journey paid off.
Until it didn’t.
After collecting a tube-full of little critters, he looked up and lost all sense of direction.
After numerous unsuccessful attempts to find any discernible footpath, the sun began to set and Mike began to panic.
He was lost.
After five days without food or clean water, Mike realized that he wasn’t going to make it out of the forest alive. As he carved a final message to this wife on a piece of driftwood by a creek, he heard the faint sound of helicopter blades whirling in the distance, prompting him to put down the knife and gather pine branches that he used to spell the word “HELP” with eight-foot letters on a rock outcropping.
Mike had given up hope and was resigned to die beside his driftwood love letter. Until he heard whirling blades.
Having been hopelessly lost he was gloriously found.
Can You Relate?
Can you relate to what it feels like to be lost? Not necessarily lost in the woods, but the feeling of looking up and losing a sense of direction.
- For some, this lostness is just a lowgrade feeling of discontent or emotional emptiness.
- Maybe you are not in the career you planned. You feel stuck and unmotivated. You feel lost.
- The relationship you counted on has broken down. You feel alone, with no visible way out of the despair. Just surviving from day to day. You feel lost.
- Or maybe it is a spiritual lostness. At one time, you felt so close to God, but now he seems distant and your prayers just echo in the forest.
I want you to know that there is hope for those of us who find ourselves lost. This hope is embedded into Luke 19:1–10 and teaches us the lesson Mike Vilhauer learned in the California wilderness.
The prerequisite to being found is knowing you are lost.
My prayer is that in this post you’ll be able to hear the faint whirl of helicopter blades.
We begin in verses 1–3 with…
1. A Man Named Zacchaeus
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.
Jericho was a major taxation point for goods passing east and west in the Roman Empire.
As a “chief” tax collector, Zacchaeus was in a prime location to become incredibly wealthy, which is one of only a few things we know about this man in addition to being height-challenged.
Why did Zacchaeus want to see Jesus?
It could be that he just wanted to get a glimpse of a religious celebrity. Jesus was quite famous in the region, not only as a gifted teacher but as a miracle worker, known as someone who even claimed the authority to forgive sins of the most despised sinners, like tax collectors.
Zacchaeus, as a chief tax collector, would have been among the most despised.
Though, if we look more deeply, my guess is that God has been working in Zach’s life, bringing him to a point where he is able to confess that he is lost.
I wonder if all the money he had made and all the possessions he had acquired weren’t as fulfilling as he had expected. He may have been a rich man but I’m thinking he was a lonely man who had a number of surface business associates and a handfull of shallow acquaintances in the party scene.
But at the end of the day, he was lonely. Empty. Hopelessly lost but desperately wanting to be found.
I think this explains why he takes such…
2. Extraordinary Measures
Look in verse 4.
4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
Instead of using the dignified gate of a respectable businessman, he runs. Rather than standing on the side of the road like other respectable citizens, he starts climbing a tree.
These are extraordinary measures!
Zacchaeus is acting like a child, giddy with excitement at the possibility of seeing Jesus as a little boy or girl would be at the prospect of sitting on Santa’s lap in the mall.
It is as if by running down the street and climbing a tree he is spelling HELP in eight-foot-tall letters made of pine straw.
Whatever it takes. And in the midst of taking desperate measures, Zacchaeus begins to hear the faint sound of helicopter blades whirling.
Because his extraordinary measures lead to…
3. A Stunning Invitation
Look in verses 5–7.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Archeological evidence indicates that there were up to 3,000 inhabitants in Jericho when Jesus passed through on his way to Jerusalem, which leads us to guestimate a relatively large crowd would have gathered along the road as Jesus passed by.
Of all these people, Jesus singles out one — the most despised man in the village, who apparently had cheated the townsfolks in his tax collection practices and was hated for it.
This was a stunning invitation because Zacchaeus was the very last person in the crowd anyone would have expected Jesus to single out for blessing. You have to understand. Going to someone’s home in the ancient world was a symbol of intimate friendship.
Jesus is saying, “Zacchaeus, I want to be your friend. I want to know you. I have come to rescue you.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “I suppose I will go to your house today.” He says, “I must stay at your house today.”
Why must? Why Zacchaeus?
Some context will help.
Earlier in this gospel, in chapter 9, verse 51, not long after the famous feeding of the 5,000 in Galilee, we read this:
“As the time approached for Jesus to be taken up to heaven, he resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”
The literal translation of that verse says, “Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.”
What caused Jesus to be so determined, purposeful, and focused?
He was on his way to Jerusalem for the Passover. His final Passover, because this was his death march, where Jesus would willingly lay his life down as the substitutionary, sacrificial Lamb of God, fulfilling generations of expectation that the sin-debt of God’s elect would be paid in full.
Jesus was the ultimate and final Passover lamb, sacrificed for sinners just like Zacchaeus.
In the wake of being singled out for blessing by Jesus, Zacchaeus manifests…
4. A Decisive Change
Look in verse 8.
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
“Here and now I give.”
With these words, Zacchaeus demonstrates a decisive change has taken place in his heart.
Up to this point, his life mantra had been, “Here and now I take.”
But with all he had taken, he still was lost.
We can imagine Zacchaeus saying to himself, “There has to be more to life than this? Something is desperately missing? My money and possessions, the party scene… I still feel so empty.”
Then, Jesus passes by, looks into his eyes, and calls him by name.
What does Zacchaeus do?
He responds to mercy by smashing his idol into tiny unrecognizable pieces! What idol? His wealth. How does he smash it? By giving it all away, exactly unlike the rich young ruler in the previous chapter.
Having received forgiveness and freedom and life, he doesn’t just give away 10% but 50% of his possessions. More than that, he promises to pay 400% in restitution to anyone he had cheated in his business.
Being how he likely had cheated everyone in the community, Zacchaeus’ pledges to impoverish himself for the blessing of others — not in order to be saved but because he has been saved.
Let’s note that his generosity is not demanded nor required by Jesus. This decisive change is a response to the decisive act Jesus was on his way to fulfill.
In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul would write,
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you, through his poverty, might become rich.”
Filling himself with the world had made Zacchaeus sick. Being filled with the riches of God’s grace in Jesus — forgiveness, freedom, life, hope, joy, and peace — had made him well.
His eyes were clear. His heart was full. And his hands were open to the needs of those around him.
Now we know why Jesus had to stay with Zacchaeus that day. It was a reflection of his…
5. Singular Purpose
Look in verses 9–10.
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
“Seeking and saving.” Those two words encapsulate the mission of Jesus.
Remember, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem — toward the cross.
Look how close Jericho is to Jerusalem. Just 25 miles. He is nearing the end of his death march.
So close to the end, Luke uses Zacchaeus to show us what it looks like to be sought out by God. To be lost and found.
We see the longing that God creates, where personal humility and deep desire for rescue meet at the intersection of grace, where the message of the cross comes alive for us, creating a decisive change in our lives.
And we become children of Abraham, the patriarch back in Genesis whom the LORD credited with gift-righteousness because Abram believed the promise of a miracle child through whom the nations would be blessed.
That child would be Jesus.
Maybe this is why Jesus was so emphatic that Zacchaeus come down from the tree. After all, within a week, Jesus would find his singular life purpose fulfilled… upon a tree.
In Galatians 3:13–14 the apostle Paul alludes to Deuteronomy 21:23 when he speaks of the tree upon which Jesus would die to rescue sinners:
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we ttmight receive the promise of the Spirit.
Salvation is not about the trees we climb for God; it is about the tree Jesus climbed for us.
Our salvation is not about the extraordinary measures we make but the extraordinary measures taken by Jesus — extraordinary measures that culminated at the cross.
Four Summary Lessons
- Before we are found, we all are spiritually lost.
- The prerequisite to being found is knowing you are lost.
- Rescue can only come from above. We cannot save ourselves. We can only be saved by someone else.
- When rescued, we will experience a decisive change — a change that breaks our idols and is able to fill the heart with forgiveness, freedom, life, hope, joy, and peace.
Prone to Wander
But even in our found condition, we are still prone to wander, aren’t we?
In 1757, twenty-two-year-old Robert Robinson penned the hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. One of the stanzas reads: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”
Mary McLaurine understands what it is to wander. She has an unusual condition called developmental topographical disorientation, or DTD, which means that her brain is unable to form a mental map of her surroundings.
She has no internal compass.
People who have this condition, basically get lost every day in the most familiar surroundings.
Here’s how she described a typical incident of dealing with her DTD:
I was staying a friend’s home and decided to take their dog Otis for a walk. As I started back, I had no idea where I was. I was only blocks from where I had started my walk, but I was lost. Fear and adrenaline pulsed through my veins and I began to sweat profusely. My surroundings looked completely unfamiliar. It was as though I’d been dropped into the middle of a foreign land.
Mary says, “Those of us struggling with this disorder are often left with feelings of anxiety, depression, isolation, and self-doubt.”
Classic symptoms of lostness.
Thankfully, Mary found someone to guide her back to her house.
The Cross as True North
This is what the cross is for us. It is our True North. The spiritual compass that leads us home, reminding us that…
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray… but the LORD has laid on [Jesus] the iniquity of us all.
What would it have been like to be in that tree and have Jesus stop to single you out, looking into your eyes, and calling your name? What if that were you? It can be. Not in a tree, but right where you are. Right now, as you hear the whirring blades of rescue and believe that Jesus’s death march wasn’t just for Zacchaeus. It was for you.
- Describe a time in your life when you felt lost? When did you realize that you were lost? What did you do?
- Why is knowing that you are lost the prerequisite to being found?
- How do you think humility and desire work together as key components for being found?
- How might the doctrine of spiritual regeneration help us understand the “theological dynamic” of the conversion experience? In other words, how does God prepare someone to respond to the gospel?
- How can the cross of Jesus function as “True North” for those of us who are prone to wander?
- How can we help someone else who is lost?