Sermon: The Pull of Tarshish

1.25.2015       Preaching Text: “‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” (Jonah 3:2)

For years, the Book of Jonah has been one of my favorite biblical stories, as it was for the early church. As the earliest Christians searched Hebrew scripture for foretellings of Christ, Jonah’s 3-day disappearance into the belly of the whale (and his subsequent re-emergence) seemed to parallel Jesus’ 3-day descent into hell, before his resurrection.

Given that these were pre-literate times, the walls of many ancient house churches sported colorful frescoes and other painted images depicting Jonah being spewed from the mouth of the whale. Worshippers thus could see and experience the history of Christianity’s sacred origins.

My personal interest in Jonah, however, has little to do with any perceived analogy with Christ’s death and resurrection, but on the book’s main theme, specifically, Jonah’s rejection of Jahweh’s command to go to Nineveh and his subsequent decision to seek escape to faraway Tarshish.

These two disparate places are fittingly symbolic. Nineveh was the Sodom and Gomorrah of its day. And it is Jonah’s task to go there to confront its citizens in order that they might repent and turn to God.

Jonah will have nothing to do with this. It’s the last place in the world he wishes to go. So he decides to set sail for Tarshish, situated on the far west end of the Mediterranean Sea (modern-day Spain).

Tarshish had held a certain mystique, capturing the imaginations of Jonah’s contemporaries. It was considered the ends of the earth, a place few had travelled to, a place of romantic yearning and magical wonder. It was the Shangri-La of its day, more myth, that is, than reality.

In a stubborn, rebellious pique, Jonah sets out in the opposite direction, hoping to get as far as he can from both Jahweh’s authority and the depressing realities of Nineveh. It is in the midst of this forceful bid to escape into a utopian dream of his own making that Jonah encounters his nemesis, the whale.

Sobered by his stint inside the whale, Jonah eventually does go to Nineveh, preaching repentance (to which the people respond) and saving the city. A happy ending! By turning back to God and facing head-on life’s real demands and challenges, he finds the fulfillment he had falsely assumed was to be found in Tarshish alone.

I’m drawn to Jonah precisely because he exhibits a very powerful human tendency – the deep-seated desire to escape reality and travel to a place of imaginable fantasy. We are frequently drawn, that is, to the Tarshishes of our own abstract minds, pulled from the messy demands of everyday life and toward the presumed perfections of someplace pure, far away.

It was G.K. Chesterton who once commented on the irony of travelling around the world, to ever-exotic places, while never really encountering the “Other.” If you really want to get to know yourself, he said, stay put. Live in a small community where you’re forced to deal with yourself, even your disagreeable neighbor, having your life scrutinized, in other words, by those who know you best!

A few decades earlier, Søren Kierkegaard had written about repetition as a necessary condition for ethical and religious life. He compared a young man, an “aesthete,” who exhibits “rotation,” who seeks love, that is, by going from idealized woman to idealized woman, each of whom proves unsatisfactory. In this desperate pursuit born of “the love of being in love,” he experiences unhappiness, “melancholy.”

Kierkegaard’s point is that “being in love with love” necessarily proves a hollow utopian abstraction, precisely because it lacks the substance of everyday life, committed and repeated through time. It lacks the deepening of real relationships amidst life’s changes, such as one might find in marriage. There the lover stands his or her ground, finding over time repetition, reinforcement, and a deepening of the initial love connection.

Some years ago, my brother, Bob, played in a rock band that managed several “Top 10” hits. During that time, I remember listening to a tape of a new song one of the band members had written.

It had a deeply melancholy feel to it. Because they never recorded again, I no longer remember the words. But I do remember its title and its continual refrain, as well as the sad, lonely, plaintive tone in the songwriter’s voice. “Escaping, espcaping…” he sang out dreamily again and again, betraying a sad, despairing, Tarshish-like longing.

As I say, every human soul, at one time or another, possesses the urge to set sail for Tarshish, to flee what is familiar for what is unfamiliar, even if only but imagined. Yet, if Kierkegaard and Chesterton are right, the desire for love and inner peace is satisfied only by embracing ever more fully the life in which we find ourselves.

Much of contemporary philosophy, however, both of the academic sort as well as that found in pop culture, encourages us to reject the everyday-ness of life, promising instead a far more fulfilling reality beyond the mundane. Institutions such as family and church, along with their respective responsibilities and obligations, are to be replaced by some inner subjective truth that is higher and more “authentic.”

We move from person to person, thought to thought, feeling to feeling, in an ever-expanding “openness” to that which is beyond. The worse fear is to experience “epistemic closure,” meaning that the minute you know something, it has by definition become obsolete, or worse, life-negating. No, we must constantly be searching for something new, something different, something exotic, something alluring and unknown. Something very much like Tarshish.

But Christianity steadfastly demurs. It argues instead that love and joy are to be found in and through everyday life’s inevitable demands and limitations, and not by means of escapism or utopianism.

The story of creation found in Genesis, for instance, tells us that out of chaos God breathed form and content into our world. By means of the Holy Spirit, God first creates light – thus day and night. And it is deemed good. God keeps creating, dividing life into its various and separate forms – day and night, male and female, earth and sky, etc.

Then, in the fall, these differences no longer complement one another. They are now set against one another. The various parts that should work harmoniously and seamlessly together now become the cause of alienation, anxiety, and fear.

But rather than escape these divisions, as much of modern philosophy and certain “spiritualities” propose, Christian faith promises not escape but redemption of the created order, restoring creation to its original harmony and beauty.

In my younger days I came to believe (as did many of my generation) that the adult world was hopelessly corrupt. Its institutions and its understandings had proven irretrievably false, convincing me that they needed to be replaced.

Eventually, thank God, I discovered that those same very imperfect institutions were imperfect precisely because they were made up of decidedly imperfect people such as myself – a revelation of sorts!

Previously, I had seen myself, in effect, as sinless, while the rest of the adult world formed the locus of all that was evil. “How convenient!” as Dana Carvey’s ‘church lady’ from Saturday Night Live might have said.

As I came to understand myself better, however, I realized that replacing “the system” with something created out of whole cloth by naïve and simplistic utopianists such as myself probably wasn’t the best solution!

Christ came to redeem the world in all its varied forms, and not to usher forth escape. For, as the old adage goes, the best way around something is to go through it.

In other words, go not west, young man (or woman), toward the fantastical dreamscapes of distant and exotic Tarshish, but east to the real, hard life challenges and God-filled promises of Nineveh. For there alone shall you find God’s redemptive and life-giving presence. Amen.