The Tarshish Blues

September 5, 2021


“The Tarshish Blues”
Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

Scripture: Matthew 12:38-42 (NRSV)

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ 39But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 41The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! 42The queen of the South will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!

The Tarshish Blues are tough. Well, all the blues are tough. There are Memphis blues and Bayou Blues and Chicago Blues and Delta Blues. All the blues are a hard place to be. That’s why they call them the blues so says Elton John. And if you must know the Rollings Stones are simply a blues band. And Keith Richards is just a blues man.
But the Tarshish Blues, well, they are hard. When Jesus says, the only sign you get is the sign of Jonah, oh, man, that was tough, harsh. Maybe the toughest thing Jesus ever said. Jesus cursed people; called them evil; even told them they were vipers. But the sign of Jonah? Oh, man. If all you get is the sign of Jonah, well, that means you got the Tarshish Blues. Not a good place to be.
Before I proceed with the sermon, I want to give a disclaimer. Fair warning: I am going to contradict 2000 years of interpretation right now. For 2000 years the church has said the sign of Jonah is about Jesus and the resurrection. I don’t believe it is and I don’t say that lightly. I have no candle to hold to Augustine or Chrysostom, Origen or Tertillian, let alone Calvin or Barth. But there is a bit of misstep with the sign of Jonah for a long, long time.
I was hoping to enjoy the rest of the day, even the next day as a holiday. So I am not contradicting 2000 years of exegesis without pause. But the sign of Jonah has been terribly rendered for too long.
I am not sure where to start with this. A part of me wants to rush ahead to today, for the sign of Jonah is like a beacon, a search light, making many things all too clear right now. And this is not good. You don’t want to be illumined by the sign of Jonah. Trust me.
But another part of me wants to talk about the past. How the early church set the path, determined the way forward to orthodoxy with the Apostle Paul— how they didn’t get the blues. There’s was too much unbridled optimism.
I am stuck between the past and the present; I am torn.
Alright I’ll start with the past. The first thing you need to know is that the Apostle was not a Blues Man. He just wasn’t. The Apostle Paul was part of the forward and upward club. If you believed, confessed, and just kept breathing you were alright. There was no need for sorrow, no need to weep, because all was taken care of.
Letter after letter to church after church was one more reason, one more argument to say, “you shouldn’t sing the blues.” Everything is done; Jesus fixed it all; the cross did the work— magic. All you need do now is praise the one who made all things right.
Unfortunately, this forward and upward theory works until it doesn’t work. Once you decide to ruin yourself, it doesn’t work anymore. As long as you don’t mess this all up, well, Paul’s songs and sermons and diatribes, they work. But then you are you, we are human, and it all starts to fall apart.
But this is not just Paul’s letters. Each early patrician said the same. The sign of Jonah was not a moment to sing the blues; it was a moment to shame those who were not as perfect as you.
The sign of Jonah was a proof, an argument beyond arguing. The cross and empty tomb, the resurrection was meant to say, you have no excuse. It’s all done in Jesus. The cross is scandal to Jews, foolishness to the Gentiles because they refuse to believe. They are cursed to sing the blues. And if your life falls apart you must not have believed enough.
This is the interpretation of 2000 years. The sign of Jonah is proof Jesus is the one; Jesus is God in our midst; the cross appeases the angry God. He said three days; didn’t you hear it? Pharisees said, give us a sign. Jesus said here you go. After the resurrection, well, this sign proves everything. Jesus told you he be the earth three days, like Jonah. All you need to do is hear this message, see this sign. Can you hear it?
I did. I heard it. Unfortunately I have ears to hear. I heard the words of Jesus declaring the sign of Jonah. And I didn’t hear victory; I didn’t hear all is well; I didn’t hear just believe. I heard the blues. The Tarshish Blues.
To sing the blues is not just repeating a line before you offer another. Meet me in the morning/ 56th and Wabasha
Meet me in the morning/ 56th and Wabasha/ Honey, we could be in Kansas/ By time the snow begins to thaw. Great line. Great blues. First line repeated twice so to offer another. But the blues is more than this formula. To sing the blues is to stop, wallow even, in the broken and the forsaken.
Jonah was brought to a stop; he was broken; and he was forsaken. He heard the voice of God and he was told to go to the East; and he went to the West. God said, Go to Nineveh and Jonah set off for Tarshish. He went as far as he could from where God said to go.
And you would think cast overboard, you would think three days in the sea monster, spit up on the shore and then greeted with great success; you would think that Jonah would have said, oh I was so wrong. I didn’t get it. I should have gone to Nineveh. You would think, but thinking is not part of the Tarshish Blues.
The Tarshish blues is when all the voices of angels and the drawing pull of the Holy Spirit say, come this way, and you don’t listen. You go the other way. And, well, this doesn’t really turn out well.
Jonah was the prophet who was stopped, broken and forsaken. Jonah had the Tarshish blues and even an entire city being rescued from ruin didn’t end his lament. In fact, the blues were so intense not even profound glory and redemption could change his tune. So you don’t want the sign of Jonah.
I have asked around and no one has been swallowed by a whale lately. With climate change you never know, but for now, no one has come forward. We may not relate to his travel habits, but we can relate to bringing ourselves to ruin. Everybody, everybody has a self-destruct button. From time to time, not all the time thank goodness, but from time to time we press the button that leads to our undoing. You would think that nobody would press this self-destruct button knowing what will happen, understanding this is our own undoing. But we do.
Eugene Peterson wrote a book about Jonah and how he struggled to not self-destruct, how he seemed unable to be content or happy, even in moments of great success. What he wrote was interesting because he talked about Benedictine monks, how they have a way of living that recognizes this habit we all have of bringing ourselves to ruin, and how they look to not head down this path.
Monks take three vows. They take a vow of chastity, a vow of poverty, and a vow of obedience. St. Benedict added one more. He called the monks who followed him, who joined his order, he called them to take a vow of stability. Benedict believed we all flighty like Jonah; we are looking to get through life with success and happiness and as little suffering as possible. Nothing wrong with this. Just doesn’t tend to work out that way. God speaks to us and we don’t listen. And ironically, we are the ones who make a hash of this for ourselves.
Benedict’s fourth vow was a recognition of this. He called his monks to stay put, to live in the same place, with the same people, for a good long time. Stability was Benedict’s way of saying, our only way of not living the Tarshish Blues is that we hold each other accountable, we figure out who we are with others. Got to stay and know each other so our truth is honest. Can’t fake it in stability. And Benedict was right. If avoiding ruin was just a matter of understanding or recognition or trusting Jesus, then a lot of lives and dreams dashed would be whole. Turns out it takes a life together lived honestly to keep us from ruin.
This is the crux of my interpretation of the sign of Jonah and how it has been misinterpreted for centuries. The early church, the patricians, they took the words of Jesus here as a prediction about his glory. They read his warning as a promise of good things. The resurrection is a good thing. I have no qualms with easter and the brass and the lilies. Only they really don’t fit with what Jesus is telling the Pharisees. Jesus tells them, you want a sign, then I’ll give you one. The sign of Jonah is that they will ruin what is good; God will speak to them and they will not listen. All that is good in life will be offered and they will make a mess of it. That is what happened to Jonah, and thus, the sign of Jonah.
After three days in the whale, spit up on the beach, and having brought redemption to the Ninevites, Jonah is still unhappy; he still has the blues. That’s the sign of Jonah.
No matter how much good Jesus will do, no matter how much truth he will bring, folks will put him to death, ruin the gift of the incarnation of God. The sign of Jonah.
The early church, with the apostle Paul, liked to rush past the ruin for the resurrection. It is as if Jesus lets us skip over the part where we ruin ourselves. With the empty tomb we are no longer accountable for the ruin; we are set free. We have been chosen, elected, predestined, and atoned for. Which is all fine and well until we press the self-destruct button and head out for Tarshish; God says go east and we go west. In the cross of Christ we may glory, but Jesus tells his disciples to pick up their own cross.
Benedict was right. About the only chance we have is each other. I am not saying we should not believe in God, look to the Holy Spirit. I am certainly not saying that we can avoid following what Jesus says. No. Where Benedict was so right is how this belief and wisdom and trust is precarious in the best of times and it is darn near impossible if we try this on our own. We need each other to uncover what is lost in us, to remove the layers of falsity that so often hide our fears.
I think it is fair to say there is a bit of uncertainty right now, instability. So many times I was certain the pandemic was over only to see it start up again. It rained in Greenland the other day at the top of an ice shelf. Not supposed to do that. Kind of like tornados in New Jersey, the insane drivers create enough uncertainty without having to worry about tornadoes.
There is no denying a certain amount of instability right now; it is good to be honest about that. But what we need to keep to, to hold tight to is that we have each other, we are a church. This is the only real chance we have. The sign of Jonah, well, that is too often all too clear. Don’t need to point that out. What we need to see and believe in is each other. Regain that stability so we don’t sing the blues. Amen.

Bible References

  • Jonah 3:1 - 4:5
  • Matthew 12:38 - 42