In an essay entitled “Message in a Bottle,” Walker Percy asks the reader to imagine a group of people stranded on an island in the middle of the ocean (this simple meditation is based very loosely on that scholarly essay). The island is beautiful, the weather is great, and there is plenty of food and water; but it is not home, and all those folks stranded there would like to get home. But there is only one person out of all of them who is serious about really doing anything to help make that happen. Let’s call him John.
Right from the beginning when they were stranded after a shipwreck, John was telling everyone that they must make some preparations to help them be seen and get rescued. “We must constantly be on the watch for passing ships, or for airplanes, and then we must be ready to signal them,” he would say. “We must build a great pile of wood that we can light at any time, and with a huge fire call attention to ourselves.” The others helped John build the wood pile, and for a while, they took turns keeping watch. But as time went on and no one ever saw anything, most of them gave up hope of ever being discovered. John, however, never gave up hope, and spent every spare moment watching the sky and the horizon for any sign of a plane or a ship.
One day, while on the beach, John made an amazing discovery. A glass bottle had washed ashore, and in the tightly corked bottle there was a message. John, filled with hope, quickly opened the bottle and read the message. It said, “The Boston Red Sox won the World Series in six games.” What a strange message, he thought. Where did it come from? Does this mean someone knows that we are here? And if so, why would they write such a trivial message? And most importantly, would they write again?
John then looked around, and saw several more bottles on the beach. With great excitement, he collected the bottles and read the messages– and then he saw still more bottles and more messages, all dated, and sent over a period of several months. He read them all, and what a strange assortment of messages it was. Here are a few: “Congress in gridlock over budget battle… Meryl Streep is nominated for yet another Academy Award… Actor Peter O‘Toole dies at the age of 81… Stock market gains 150 points in a single day… Stock market drops dramatically… Canada again wins Olympic Gold in hockey… Last winter was one of the coldest on record…” And so on.
What strange messages, he thought. Why would anyone even bother to send such an assortment of useless information? He said to himself, “I don’t care about Academy Awards or sports or politics or the stock market. I want to get off this island.” In disgust, he almost threw all the messages back into the ocean– but then John saw one more bottle. He first ignored it, thinking it was probably just more of the same, but out of curiosity he opened it and read the message. And this one was different. It said… “I know you are out there somewhere, and I will come to rescue you. Build a fire and keep it going. I will be leaving soon to try and find you. Remember, keep the fire going so I can spot you. It is a big ocean and I have only a vague idea where you are.” This note was dated quite recently, and it was just the kind of message John had been hoping to find. This was what he had been waiting for ever since they were stranded on that island.
John ran back to tell the others. He started to describe how it all happened; how he first found those useless messages, a few of which he read and then tossed, and then he found that one all-important message. “Let’s get to work,” he said, “we must light the fire now, and we must gather more wood to keep it burning. Someone might already be out there looking for us.” But then to his astonishment, he saw that no one was listening to what he was saying. They were all running after the useless messages, those he just tossed to the wind. “What was that one about Meryl Streep?,” one said. “What were the dates on those messages about her stock market,” and, “Were there any about last year’s Super Bowl?,” said others. “Did you see any about Kim Kardashian?” asked another, “I have been dying to know if she ever got back together with Kris Humphries.”
John could not believe what he was hearing. They were all interested in only the useless messages, and they were ignoring the one and only message that offered any hope at all. “Who cares who won the Super Bowl?,” John shouted at them, “Who cares about Kim Kardashian? We have a chance to get off this island. We have received a message from across the sea, from home, from the place we hope to return to, and we must do as it says and build a fire.” But no one was listening to him. Perhaps they did not believe the message, or perhaps they had given up hope. He didn’t know. All he knew is that they were ignoring the best hope they ever had of being saved. He could not prove to them that the message was true and that they would be rescued. But it was certainly worth doing all they could to respond in whatever way they could to what they did know. There was no other hope…
This story is a parable on modern life. Like the many messages floating in from the sea, we have on our radios, TVs, smart phones, and computers an endless flow of information and entertainment, and the opportunity to read or watch or hear whatever we want all day long. But the problem is we become more and more obsessed with the trivial, and less and less familiar with what is most important. People are up to date on every Hollywood scandal, or know every detail about the Minnesota Vikings, but cannot name even half of the ten commandments, nor can they quite remember what Good Friday and Easter is all about. And they pay little attention to what might happen after the moment of death, toward which we are all racing, nor do they pay any attention to what preparations might have to be made for when that time comes.
Most people have somewhere in their house a copy of the Holy Bible. Like the messages in the bottles, these are words from another place. Also, like the messages in the bottles, these are words from Someone who can rescue us from the troubles and sadness and shortness of this life. Here is just one verse from that Bible, Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In that one verse is described our desperate situation, and, our hope for rescue. We are sinners, it says, and that isn’t only a harsh judgment coming in from outside of us. We feel the misery of our sinfulness in our own heart and soul. Don’t you ever get wearied by troubled relationships, tired of making mistakes, of saying the wrong thing; tired of forgetting to be kind and understanding; tired of yielding to temptation, and tired of not being the sort of person you know you should be and want to be. That is sin, and the wages of sin is death, says the verse. And you don’t even need the Bible to tell you about death. We all know that our little journey here is this earth is brief, and goes by way to fast, and then it is over. But, says the second half of the verse, there can be more. There is in fact a whole eternity to be had, as the gift of God, in Christ Jesus, for all who will believe in Him. This is worth hearing about, and believing in, and paying attention to.
In the New Testament book of Revelations there is a message similar to that message from across the sea, in fact, it also was given to a man named John. This message is from across the ages,-– it is a revelation, like the name of the book says, a vision, from the distant future. And it also is from a place where we all want to go. We don’t want to just be obliterated into dust and ashes when we die, we would like to go on to a better place. And this vision in Revelation is from a better place– a place beyond the grave, where God will live with us, a place where, as it says in chapter 21, there will be no more suffering, no more tears, no more death or grief or crying or pain. If there were such a place, and Christians believe there is, would we not long for it even more than one stranded on an island would hope for a return home? This message that John received from across the ages, and which he brings to us, is the most important message we could ever receive.
But does this message get the attention it deserves? Or is there for so many people, a much deeper interest in other things, things of infinitely less value? Of course, there can be a legitimate, lesser interest in sports or politics or the stock market– but if our interest in those kind of secondary issues begins to leave no time for or room for any attention to be paid for things of eternal value, then we are most surely to be pitied, and like those on the island, will remain lost.
The messages in the bottles along the seashore gave rise to many unanswered questions: Where did these messages come from? Who sent them? Can they really help me? But even without answers to all the questions, it was most reasonable for John to want to build a fire, to do as he had been told. In those messages there was a reason for hope, and something well worth putting one faith and effort into. There had been no other hope, no other communication from across the sea. Why would one not want to pay closest attention to that message? Why would the others run after only the most useless information?
Walker Percy in his essay said (paraphrased), “If I am in the desert dying of thirst, is it good news to know that there is a pile of diamonds just over the next hill? Of course not. Good news would be to know that there is a glass of water just over the next hill. We have to have the wisdom to know what good news is, and a life and death situation changes the value of everything.”
We live our whole lives in a life and death situation, every minute of every day we live in what the Bible calls ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’ That should change our perspective on the value of everything: what we spend our money on, what we pay attention to, and to what we devote our time and energy. In an instant all can be taken away; or I should say, as we well know, in some future instant all will be taken away. But the Apostle John tells us that he saw in his message from across the ages, that even though all will be taken away, all will then be restored, and what will be made new will be better than ever. This is a message worth paying attention to, and it is to be found only in Jesus Christ. There is no other offer on the table. This is a message worth believing in, and trusting in, and honoring and obeying. For the time will come when it will not matter if Vikings win a Super Bowl, or if the stock market is up or down, or if yet another celebrity marriage is rocked by scandal, or if the Democrats or the Republicans are in charge. What will matter is that we heard and believed in God’s gift of eternal life, ours by faith in Jesus Christ.
Pay attention to these messages from the Bible. For there in that Word of God is offered your only chance to ever get off this dangerous little island we call we call our world, alive.
Deuteronomy 32:47a — They are not just idle words for you— they are your life.
Romans 6:23 — For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Revelation 21:1…3-5 — Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” … and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Let not thy Word, O Lord, become a judgment upon us, that we hear it and do it not, that we know it and love it not, that we believe it and obey it not: O Thou, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, world without end. Amen.
–Thomas a Kempis (1380?-1471)