But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.
Jonah 1:2 (NIV)
Running away is a common theme throughout the Great Story. It takes many different forms. Call it running, hiding, fleeing, wilderness, or exile…
- Adam and Eve hid from God in their shame.
- Cain was doomed to be a restless wanderer.
- Abraham was called to leave his home and people.
- Jacob fled after deceiving his father and brother.
- Joseph was sold into slavery and exile.
- Moses fled to Midian after committing murder.
- David fled to the wilderness from Saul.
- Elijah fled to the wilderness after defeating the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
- The Hebrews were taken into exile in Babylon.
- Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted.
- The prodigal son took the money and ran to a distant country.
- The disciples fled to Galilee after Jesus’ crucifixion.
Today we start back into the story of a prophet named Jonah. He is called by God to go to Nineveh, a provincial Assyrian city about 550 miles to the northeast of Jonah, and prophesy against it. Instead, Jonah books passage across the Mediterranean to Tarshish, a city on the southern tip of what is now Spain, 2500 miles to the west. At the time of Jonah, Tarshish would have literally been considered the end of the world and as far away from Nineveh as one could possibly get. Jonah was running from his calling. He was fleeing his destiny. He went on the lam from God.
I have found that a great many people have periods of their life journey in which they flee something. It’s part of the human experience. There are things one learns, experiences, finds and/or acquires only in the wilderness. Perhaps that is why wilderness is a part of every mythical heroes journey.
I have my own period of self-imposed running earlier in my life. I ran from a lot of things for a lot of reasons. I wandered to places I should never have been and did things I should never have done. I now consider that stretch of my life journey “the dark years.” And yes, looking back with hindsight I see how it was critical for me to experience it.
In Jonah’s case, we find him trying to run away from God. I couldn’t help but hear King David’s lyrics in my spirit as I read the chapter today. Lyrics, by the way, with which Jonah would likely have been familiar:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about both the pain of my dark years and once again grieving the injuries I caused to those I love. I’m once again reminded that I was always aware of God’s presence, even in the darkest of places. I’m also thinking about the purpose that the dark years served in the long run of my spiritual journey.
You see, just as the wilderness is a consistent theme, so is the return.