The Message in the Bottle: Thoughts on Worship

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I have in my possession something I am willing to wager no one else reading these words has. My senior year of college, I spent a semester studying in Israel. My group of friends had a three day weekend and no plans, so we decided that we would go camping by the sea. We randomly picked a place along the Mediterranean coast on our travel map: the ancient Persian port city of Dor.

We packed three days’ worth of supplies, hopped in a taxi, showed the driver the map, and set off. After three hours of driving on a highway, the driver turned off onto a sandy path (which hardly constituted a road), drove about two miles and stopped, saying, “Here you go.”

All around us was deserted beach. No city, no vendors, no nothing. Just beach.

We didn’t understand that the Old English typeface labeling Dor on the map meant that it was not an actual city with people in it and stuff, but a ruin. So there we stood, six American students alone on a deserted beach in the middle of Israel.

It was awesome.
That night we slept in sleeping bags on the beach under a starry sky I can’t even begin to describe. The next morning, a few of us decided to go for a run up the beach. As I was running, a glimmer of light by the water caught my eye. I stopped, and there, half-buried in the sand where the water lapped up on the shore, was a bottle, and in the bottle was a rolled up piece of paper. I had found a genuine message in a bottle!

Here’s a picture of the actual one:message-in-a-bottle.jpg

What is written on a message in a bottle found like that? Maybe a distress call from shipwreck survivors, or a plea for help from a kidnapping victim being carried off by international terrorists. Maybe it contained the map to an otherwise lost treasure. It might have been some desperate person’s last ditch effort to reach the outside world hoping that they might be sought and found. Lives might have hung in the balance!

What would you have done?

What did I do?

Well, I didn’t have a corkscrew, and I certainly didn’t want to ruin my find by shoving the cork into the bottle.

So I waited. For two months, I waited.

Does this frustrate you? My defense was, “Look, its complicated. I know the message could be important, but isn’t it also important that I get to preserve my souvenir?” The message could’ve changed my life or saved someone else’s, but as far as I was concerned, the sheer luck of finding the bottle itself was enough of a life-change for one day.

So I stuffed it away in my pack.

I believe that when it comes to worshiping the Lord, this is where many of us are. We’ve been given a “message in a bottle,” a declaration from Christ Himself that we were made for relationship with God, but we hesitate to engage Him because our situation is complicated.

Maybe we learn along the way to appreciate, even treasure the outward trappings of worship, but don’t really engage the message contained in it. Maybe we even financially invest in acquiring worship music to listen to. But when it comes to really worshiping God, bowing our hearts and selves in reverence and adoration before Him, we seldom do. All the trappings of religion have complicated things.

But Jesus seeks to uncomplicate things and engage our hearts with an invitation to quench a thirst we may not even know we have—thirst for life as it was meant to be. And we find this best in worship. Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” We were created for the presence of God.

And His word, like a message in a bottle, tells us of what is to come in the glory we await: And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.” Revelation 21:22-25

In glory there will be no temple because the Lord God Himself will be the center of worship. If you are in Christ, you will be there for all eternity.

This life is a vapor, and well over 99.999% of your existence as a believer will be in the glorious presence of God, the Lover of your soul. And your reputation will not precede you there. Everything will be as it was always meant to be, and you will know true worship, unfettered by the complications you feel even now.

As glorious as that will be, the great news for today is that our God, right here and now, seeks worshipers who will worship Him in Spirit and in truth.

To worship the Lord is the invitation to a foretaste of the Glory you will know forever. But it not enough to just possess this message. Engage the message.

Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


11 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    In leaving out the content contained in the message of the bottle, Russ has strongly reinforced the premise of his post. Still, let’s have it Russ. What did it say? 🙂

  2. Robert McB

    A couple of years ago, during this season, our pastor talked about presents. He talked about how much pelasure he gets when he sees someone acutally using something he gave them as a gift. He then asked how we would feel if we gave someone a gift and they never opened it, but set it on the shelf and cherished its beauty, but never opned it. Of course, he then asked how it must make God feel when we don’t use, or even open, the gifts He has given us. His charge to us was “Unwrap it. Use it. Play with it. God will delight in those acts.” That was a message I needed to hear then and again today. I am all too often afraid to open His gifts and use them for fear that they are too precious and I will only break them.

    Thanks for the reminder and the encouragement to use what He has given me.

  3. Nate

    We all want to know about the message in the bottle.

    But I also want to know about worship. Yeah, we should worship. We should open that bottle and check it out (I guess). But what does that mean? Does it consist of standing up and singing a song? Is that all it is? If I worship in singing a song, then is it worship for everyone else to sing that song too? Is that song worship? Or is there something more? Jesus said to worship in spirit and truth, but he didn’t say anything about singing songs. You say to “engage the message.” I say “How?”

    I apologize if I’m coming off in a rude or confrontational way. Thats not my intent. This is just a fabulous introduction to what could possibly be an incredible comment on worship. So I’m asking you to talk about worship. Share wisdom and knowledge. Share experience. Please. I just took on a role in my church where I will soon be seen as a “worship leader” so I’m just seeking out more knowledge and wisdom. What makes worship… worship?

  4. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Nate, with regards to what it looks like to worship, I like the Psalms as a guide. In there you have such an honest approach to engaging with God Himself– and not just the accoutrements of worship.

    We serve in worship Jesus by giving to Him the honor due His name– which leaves us testifying of His great love and amazing grace toward sinners. Our service of worship reaches upward and outward. Worship is majestic. We minister to Christ through it. Its also medicinal and missional as we minister to others through our witness. Here’s perhaps a decent framework for how to worship, and it focuses on Who Christ has presented Himself to be, though its certainly not exhaustive

    JESUS IS OUR PROPHET. Serve Him in your worship by giving Him your attention. Seek to know His word, to dwell upon it… to ask that He would sear your conscience with it. And then serve His creation by revealing Christ through your life.

    JESUS IS OUR PRIEST. Serve Him in your worship by giving Him your confession, your sin, your brokenness, your reputation, your woundedness… And then serve His creation by adoring Him, and the reconciliation He gives with your life.

    JESUS IS OUR KING. Serve Him in your worship by giving Him your obedience and allegiance to His rule over your life. And then serve His creation by applying His rule to your life, living every day as one who belongs to His Kingdom.

    We were created for relationship with God—to live lives of worship service to our Lord. It would be one thing if we had to claw our way to some unattainable perch of righteousness to even be considered worthy of life with Him—but that would only be if we had no prophet to reveal salvation to us, no priest to make reconciliation for us and no king to rule in authority and majesty over us. But we have all these in Christ and He seeks worshipers and bids us now come and thirst no more.

    I think we struggle to know what worship looks like often becasue we’re not thinking primarily about engaging God himself, but rather some activity or resource that carries the label “worship” on it. (An analogy for me personally is the difference between being a reader or just a collector of books. I have an impressive collection of books. But many of them are unread. I’ll even carry one or two around with me for weeks, even months on end, becasue I mean to read them, but having them on the floor of my car and reading them are two different things entirely. So it can be woth worship. We carry around all we need to know to approach the throne of God, but don’t engage the material.)

    Anyhow, I hope this is somewhat helpful. Again, the best answer to how to worship is to go to the Psalms, which really teach us how to pray– which is the best way I’ve ever know to worship God.

    As for what the message in the bottle said, I’ll write about that in another follow-up reply here tomorrow. I promise. It requires some context, but I’ll spill it, eventually.

  5. Andrew C

    I love Russ’ response to Nate, and I love Nate’s honesty in asking, “what in the world are we talking about in the first place”. This has been a big struggle in my heart for years. The answer I’ve found has come from honest, heart-to-heart communion with Jesus as I’ve read His word and just talked with Him.

    God continues to amaze me with how I cannot understand Him if I’m trying to get Him figured out to fit Him into a box of mine where I can feel like I’ve mastered or tamed this or that aspect of His character. But it’s in the simple child-like faith that He continuously reveals Himself to me. So here’s what I have found up to this point in my journey:

    What we love and are obsessed with, we spend time with and just gaze at. We adore it. The more time we spend with it, the more we become like it, as it becomes the desire of our hearts. If that can be true in a material sense, how much more true is it with the God who is drawing us into intimacy with Him?

    It’s so cool that this discussion here can very easily connect with Ron’s previous entry about faith. I think God designed us to know Him, pursue Him, and then our worship is a natural overflow that many times maybe we don’t even notice that we are doing. So I’ve taken Russ’ challenge and all the discussion that has followed as a call for me to keep on pursuing Jesus and asking Him to transform me and make every beat of my heart worship to Him, whether I intend it or whether it’s unconscious.

  6. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    For those of you wanting to know what the message said, here it goes.

    I really did wait those two months. I suppose I was enough of a narcissitic college kid that it didn’t really bother me at all. I knew I’d get to it, eventually. I also figured that the odds of it really being an “S.O.S” message was the stuff of Gilligan and Hollywood.

    Anyhow, when I got back to the states, I took a corkscrew and gingerly opened the bottle and slipped out the note. There was writing on both sides. On one side it was a printed manifest for a kitchen of some sort. It was a checklist for kitchen items, including some food items– an inventory list. It was in a language I did not immediately recognize, but I have come to understand is Italian.

    This led me to believe the message came from a ship in the Mediterranean Sea– possibly a cruise liner. It was a ship with a galley. I assume the bottle was once part of the ship’s wine cellar.

    The other side of the paper had the actual message on it. And the more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more I’ve come to appreciate what it says– and how it says it.

    At first I was a little disappointed. I read it and thought to myself, “Is that it?” But now, after putting some of the pieces together in my mind, it brings me a lot of joy to imagine how that message in the bottle came to be.

    There are two different sets of handwriting, and two messages. One is intelligible, the other is not– thought you can deduce what the second message says. They’re both in english.

    The one you can read says, “Gillie is the best!”

    I have a son who is in second grade, and the handwriting looks like something a second grader would write.

    The other not quite as legible (and presumably written by Gillie) reads, “So is ___________”

    Here’s what I imagine. A large round table with a white linen table cloth and candle light in a dining room aboard an ocean-going vessle. Adults and kids are there for dinner. Music is playing. Its a fancy dinner, with wine flowing. The adults are enjoying the meal, the cruise and the fact that they are fortunate enough to be in the position they’re in.

    The kids, on the other hand, are looking for adventure. Perhaps they’re a bit bored, looking to turn a stuffy grown-up meal into something fun for them too.

    And one of them, say its Gillie’s older friend, sees the empty bottle and the cork, and begins to imagine them lost at sea, and how that bottle and cork might be their only hope of rescue. To children, these sorts of things are not only plausible, but can even seems to be likely.

    He and the younger Gillie (in my mind, he’s younger, since he writes more like a four year old) begin to talk about their imagined adventure. And they decide they want to really test out the whole message in a bottle thing.

    They need something to write with. And something to write on.

    Perhaps the blue ball point pen they used was one of those click pens with the logo of some insurance company on the side or something like that.

    But they still needed paper. Maybe the waiter could get them a piece (I’m imagining the napkins on the table were linen too.) So they ask and the waiter scrounges in the kitchen and finds them a scrap– an old inventory manifest.

    Gillie and the older boy are in business.

    But then they realize there’s still something missing. They’ve got a bottle, a cork, a pen and a piece of paper. But they lack a message to write down and send off. Ahh, the plight of writers everywhere. Opportunity requires text.

    What to say. What to say.

    What’s on their minds. Maybe its friendship. Maybe its an opportunity to become something akin to blood brothers. “Let’s write that we’re best friends.”

    So the older one thinks a while and comes up with “Gillie is the best.”

    The younger one, following his elder’s lead, falls in line and reciprocates. “So is _______________”

    And they ask to be excused. The grown-ups in charge ascent, and tell them to make sure they only go where they can be easily found. The boys agree, and with the utmost sense of solemnity and importance, they take their bottle, their mesage and their bond of friendship up to the deck and ceremoniously drive the cork into the bottle. And each with a hand on the bottle they count to three and heave it over the rail into the deep blue crystaline waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

    It bobs and floats along for who knows how long, obeying the moon and the tides and the currents until it eventually washes up on the shores of the ancient coastal ruins of the Persian port city of Dor where a country boy from Indiana finds it half buried and shining in the sun.

    Gillie, if you’re out there, and I even close?

    With regards to the main emphasis of my post, that message has caused me to think about how when I was a boy, friendship was serious business. I had a blood brother, and we regarded each other as someone we were bound to for life. Our blood had mingled and that meant our bond was permanent. We had other friends, but no other blood brothers.

    It was easier in many ways to engage in intimate friendship then. There was no posturing, no presenting ourselves in the best light. Our solemn rite of blood-brotherhood sealed us to each other, and we took that seriously, and as a point of fact.

    When I think about worship, its not just that I don’t engage the message of the Gospel, its that there are reasons I hesitate– informed reasons. It costs us something to surrender to a posture of vulnerability before others, even God (though we’re fools if we think we’re not vulnerable before Him.)

    As a kid, I had no reason not to engage my blood brother in the fine art of friendship. But the older I get, the more I recognize that I’m not that kind of friend nearly as much as I once was. I’m now one of the grown-ups at the same table as Gillie and the other kid– smiling down upon the innocence of their youth, but not participating in it near as much. I appreciate the wine in the moment more than the futue use of the bottle.

    But now I’m wading far too deeply into the realms of metaphor.

    Suffice it to say, I pray that engaging with God on an intimate level might find greater urgency in my heart– and yours– and that Christmas would help us all in that as we contemplate the incarnation of our Immanuel, our God with Us. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. May this change in me and in you this Christmas.

    And Merry Christmas Gillie. Thanks for the gift. Its one of the best I’ve ever received.

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