Tickets to Tarshish

      Comments Off on Tickets to Tarshish

So how did the prophet Jonah end up on a Mediterranean beach smelling like a tin of sardines?
It all began with a call from God that, in Jonah’s mind, was definitely not his dream job:
“‘Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh!  Preach to them.  They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.’  But Jonah got up and went the other direction to Tarshish, running away from God.  He went down to the port of Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish.  He paid the fare and went on board, joining those going to Tarshish – as far away from God as he could get” (Jonah 1:1-3, The Message).
Nineveh, which was east of Israel, was the capital of Assyria, one of the ancient world’s evil empires.  The Ninevites were decidedly lacking in people skills.  After they annihilated an enemy city, Assyrian soldiers would typically leave behind a pyramid of human heads as a warning to their neighbors.
Jonah was so excited about the opportunity to work with this stimulating group of people that he immediately headed in the opposite direction.
I have a friend who used to say that his fantasy, whenever he got the blues, was to buy a Winnebago and head for the beaches of southern California.  Why those beaches?  They happen to be about as far west as you can go behind the wheel of a Winnebago.
Jonah bought a one-way ticket to the farthest point west he could possibly imagine.  At that time it was a place called Tarshish.  Author Eugene Peterson points out that to this day nobody really knows the exact location of Tarshish.  Presumably it was near Spain, perhaps Gibraltar.  In Scripture the very name connoted magic, mystery, and escape. 
King Solomon imported from Tarshish gold, silver, ivory, monkeys, and peacocks.  In the popular imagination it became a synonym for paradise – a kind of prototypical Club Med.  Going to Tarshish amounted to dropping off the face of the earth. 
Perhaps God has also called you, in one way or another, to go east.  But all you want to do right now is head west. 
Perhaps you made a promise to be there for a life partner in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want.  You just didn’t realize how hard it would be to love that person when actual sickness, sorrow, and want showed up.
Now you’re standing in line to buy a ticket to Tarshish, where you’ve heard that relationships are problem-free.
Maybe you feel overwhelmed caring for a needy friend or for aging parents.  Perhaps you’re stuck in a job that’s breaking your spirit.  Or you head home every day to a messed-up house and children who hardly ever say thank-you. 
Wouldn’t it be great to have a fulfilling mid-life crisis in a place like Tarshish?
But as the story of Jonah reveals, sailing west when God calls us to go east means heading into turbulence.  In Jonah’s case that became a literal experience.  A violent storm overtook the boat on which he was making his escape. 
So Jonah made an exceedingly difficult choice.  He cancelled his trip to Tarshish.  “Throw me off the ship,” he told the crew.  They were terrified to do so.  But Jonah assured them that his absence would definitely improve their sailing conditions.  He was right.
The prophet may have assumed that his life was now over.  But as Jonah 1:17 tells us, “The Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah.”  God provided the fish.  It wasn’t a punishment, but a lifeboat.  Three days later the fish barfed him up on the shore – one of the most compelling Scripture texts for any kid who’s ever felt bored in Sunday School.
You may need to make an exceedingly difficult choice, too. 
Stop cheating.  Stop believing the lies.  It’s time to face your Nineveh.  You’re not a victim.  The running stops today.
That may seem like a radical step.  But Jonah showcased one of life’s key lessons:
It’s always safer to be treading water in God’s ocean than to be on a cruise ship heading in the wrong direction.