Tarshish…To The Far Ends of the Earth

Jonah 1:1-3

June 28, 2015

Back in 1966, Barbara McVay was a teenager living in Baltimore, Maryland. One of the things that 17-year-old Barbara wanted desperately to do was to go and visit England. Her father was stationed in the Army there at the time and Beatle mania was in full swing in the US, which led to Barbara having a big crush all boys who were English.

One day that same year, Barbara learned that a British submarine was making a goodwill visit to Baltimore before returning home to England and this stroke of unexpected good timing led Barbara to act on her dream. Believe it or not, but, 17 year old Barbara was able to sneak past British naval officers and hide out on their vessel. The truth is that she made it onboard as a runaway for four hours at which point the air supply in the compartment where she was hiding became dangerously low. And, it is a good thing that it did for that very compartment was soon to be filled with water which means had Barbara not recognized her need for oxygen she might very well have drowned. Discovering their stowaway, the British Naval officers on board had no choice but to turn around and take Barbara home remarking that as far as they knew, a goodwill stop in Baltimore did not come with the expectation of taking on teenage passengers.

Though her amazing journey took place almost 50 years ago now, Barbara McVay’s story nonetheless made Time Magazine’s 2014 list as one of the best childhood runaway stories of all time. (Five Amazing Runaway Kid Stories, Time Magazine, April 21, 2014)

As unusual as McVay’s story might be, there is nothing new about running away. From Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in literature, to Benjamin Franklin and Harry Houdini in American History, to Moses in the Old Testament and the slave Onesimus in the book of Philemon in the New Testament, our culture is full of stories about real and fictional attempts of human beings to flee the hard places in life by traveling to an often overly glorified and mythical place in search of something better, safer or at least secretive.

Perhaps there is no better example of this than the story of Jonah. The problem with Jonah is that his is such a wonderful book with so many things to think about that our mind and souls rarely give the aspect of Jonah as a runaway the time and space it deserves. Instead our attention quickly goes toward Jonah and the great fish that swallowed him or Jonah’s struggle with God’s call to go and offer forgiveness to the greatest enemies of Israel at the time – the Ninevites of Assyria. This is where we rightfully invest our time and energies in the Jonah story and thus leave behind the very first few verses and Jonah’s initial decision to simply run away from it all.

But, there is much for us to learn right here before the grander story of Jonah ever even begins. For the truth is that running away is a temptation for all of us throughout much of life. It truly is a temptation that we rarely ever grow beyond. And, running away is a real possibility whether we literally hop a train or stow away on a ship and travel thousands of miles from home or whether we simply run away in our minds, souls and in our actions through avoidance or an unwillingness to deal with what life has brought our way all while never moving a inch from where we currently stand.

Jonah ran away for the same reason. God called Jonah to do something he didn’t want to do. He asked Jonah to go where he didn’t want to go. It was a situation that in the end Jonah simply wanted to avoid. Rather than deal with a difficult situation staring him in the face – Jonah chose to run.   He boarded a ship and headed in the complete opposite direction.

The Bible tells us that he headed for Tarshish. Tarshish was a way during that time of emphasizing Jonah’s desire to run as far away as he could. We really don’t know if Tarshish was a real place or a way of describing a supposed glorious destination. Some say that Tarshish referred to a town or a region in Spain and represented the furtherest reaches of the known western world at the time. Others say that Tarshish was a way during the Old Testament period of speaking of Shangri-La or Utopia. It was a way of talking about trying to escape to the place of our dreams or an effort to get away from reality to a mythical place that didn’t really exist.

Of course what we learn and what Jonah learned is that Tarshish was no Shangri-La or Utopia and that he truly couldn’t escape.

What Jonah learned is that his problems followed him. So, he couldn’t escape from them. In truth they only multiplied first on the ship and then in the belly of a great fish. And, he couldn’t escape God, God’s call remained wherever he went. God continued to pursue him and to call him to deal with what he had been asked to do.

These are good practical words for all of us to hear for they are full of truth. We can’t run away from our problems. And, we can’t run away from God. No matter how hard we may try. In fact, trying to run away literally or figuratively through avoidance or through ignoring the issues only makes our lives more miserable. There really are no Shangri-Las that we can run to where everything can be forgotten, where we are not known and where we can just start over again. As people, as families, as a society, our own choice is to find good, gracious, Christ-like ways to face our problems and our issues and to find solutions. This was the only way for Jonah and its the only way for us.

In preparing for today, I ran across something that I had never heard before. The Christian writer Eugene Peterson, who I have come to love more and more the older I get, wrote a book on the Jonah story called Under the Unpredictable Plant. That strange title comes from a scene at the end of the book where Jonah sits and sulks under a plant that God has caused to grow to provide him shade.

In the book, Peterson talks about a little known moment from church history. It was a time all the way back in the sixth century when monasteries were being established.

As monks begin to live together in close confines 24 hours a day 7 days a week, it became common for issues to develop. Even though they were monks, they were just people like everyone else and they struggled to get along and to live in peace. In fact, things got so bad that monks were constantly getting upset and moving to another monastery where they thought things would magically be better. It was like fruit basket turnover all of the time. It kind of sounds like the 21st century church doesn’t it – where our response to things not going our way is that we pick up our toys and go somewhere else. Lest you think I am only speaking to lay people, I will point out that the average minister only stays in a congregation for less than three years and thus our track record as clergy on this issue isn’t very good either.

Peterson says that in the midst of all of this, along came a leader in the monasteries named Benedict. At the time, monks took vows to focus their lives on three disciplines- chastity, poverty and obedience. To this group of three vows, Benedict added a fourth. It was called stability or the vow to stay where you were and to make the best of life as it was by finding a creative way to work through life’s problems and challenges rather than running away from them. (Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson, Eerdmans, 1992, pages 18-22)

I don’t know about you, but, I think all of us need to reaffirm the vow of stability. We all need to reaffirm that we don’t solve anything but running away or by ignoring issues or by acting as if they are not there. That doesn’t solve anything in our personal lives, its doesn’t solve anything in our families and it doesn’t solve anything in our society where the church needs to find a way to be involved in calling all of us to act a little more like God’s children these days. There is nothing easy about any of this. Its hard work to face our problems. Its messy to be honest about what needs to be addressed. And, it is often frustrating. But, it is also the only way to bring change to our lives and change to our world. Running away never solves anything.

In the end, faith isn’t about running off to Shangri-La, its about doing all we can to bring about the kingdom of God in our own homes and in our own church and in our own community. Amen.