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  • Will Britt


Expanding on Mark 4:36-41

(cf. Matthew 8:23-27 and Luke 8:22-25)[1]

“God’s kingdom […] is like a mustard seed: when scattered upon the earth, it is smaller than all the seeds upon the earth—but when it has been scattered, it rises up and becomes greater than all the garden plants, and it produces great branches,

so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade.”

(Mark 4:30-32; italics mark the reference to Ezekiel 23:17 and 31:6)

It was already getting dark.

It was already getting dark, but the crowds did not seem interested in leaving, the needs did not seem to be getting less, and the rabbi was getting more and more tired. You could see it. He was almost swaying where he stood. Shimon had grabbed a couple of us off of crowd control to stand by and practically hold him up, though of course we tried to do it surreptitiously.

It was already getting dark when Y’shua looked at the boats and proposed that we cross over the sea to the other side, sure to be less populated. We swiftly agreed and bundled him into one of the boats, just as he was: scattered through a whole field of folks, too exhausted to regather himself. He stretched out in the stern and was asleep more or less immediately. Didn’t even bother to eat. We set the sails, said the prayer, and hoped for a quiet crossing through the night.

We were fisher-folk, most of us, accustomed to boats, at home on the sea as much as is possible on such chaos. We knew what it meant when the temperature dropped precipitously, even before the great wind came. We hauled in the sail.

It is written that when our people passed over the sea on the way out of Egypt, they did so on dry land, for the wind was so great that it completely divided the waters. What if they had been on the water at the time?

We felt like the crew of Jonah’s boat when he was trying to flee G-d’s call, except we weren’t interested in throwing overboard the prophet asleep in our boat. What was astonishing was that he still slept. The gale came over the hills from the east, blowing 30, 40 knots right on our bow. We were bouncing like a fish on a line, plunging and surging; the waves were hurling themselves over the sides of the boat, and we had locked arms to avoid being washed overboard. The other boats were lost to sight. And still he slept.

It was only when the boat was filling up and we heard death in the wind that we finally woke him. Well, I woke him. There wasn’t really a way to be gentle at the time, sloshed about as we were, but it isn’t the shaking and the yelling that I regret, exactly. We were all genuinely terrified, and we’re not new to storms. It was what I yelled.

Rabbi, don’t you care? We’re dying!

It was—I mean—it was what I felt mostly deeply, I guess, in that moment. I don’t know. It was chaos! But I still wish I had just, y’know, asked for help, rather than questioned his care. He didn’t hold it against me, I don’t think, but still, I think about it sometimes and wince.

Anyway, he woke up. He braced himself and stood up, still looking exhausted. I thought at the time he hadn’t really grasped the situation, not being exactly awake yet, but now I think he just wasn’t scared. I don’t mean he was incapable of fear—we knew him afraid, later—but this didn’t scare him. He was a Galilee-boy, sure, but he wasn’t a fisherman. Nevertheless, he looked into the teeth of the wind with this sort of haggard annoyance and said, “Calm down!”, like you would say to a bunch of kids racing around. I mean, he said it loudly. But he said it like the adult in the room. And then he looked around at the sea, whipped into a froth and almost as much in the boat as outside it, and he just told it to shut up. Muzzle yourself! Sharply, just once, like that.

And the wind died. And the air warmed. And the sea quieted. And in place of the great storm, there came a great calm.

He turned to us, then—he was looking more awake now—and in the strange silence, broken only by one or other of us bailing water in the moonlight and muttering prayers of thanks to the One who sets bounds to the sea and kennels the winds, he glanced at us bemusedly and asked one of those unanswerable questions that he was just so good at—asked genuinely, I mean, as if it was the most puzzling thing: “Why are you all fearful? Do you not trust me yet?”

None of us could find an answer, so he lay down again and went back to sleep. What do you even say to that? Like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I could trust you to be able to command the sea”? We were all a bit ashamed, I think, but in a short-lived way. What really settled in for us, as we took turns at the oars finishing our journey in the now-windless night, was a deeper, cleaner kind of fear. No longer the stomach-churning, adrenaline-pumping kind; this was somehow compatible with peace: a kind of deep reserve or reverence. And yet I’m tempted to call it a Great Fear, befitting the great storm, the great calm, even the great spreading branches of the mustard tree who had just sheltered us in his shade.

After asking around later, I have come to think I was not alone in feeling a new sympathy with Elijah in the small hours of that morning. He, too, was terrified for his life in the midst of serving G-d; there was a great wind in his story, too, though complemented by earthquake and fire, rather than deluge. Still, it was at the sound of the silence afterward that he grew overwhelmed and covered his face in the presence of the Lord Beyond Nature. Elijah, too, knew the Great Fear, the way it settles into you, the way it drives out all other fears. The awe before what transcends not just us, but even all that already exceeds and limits us. This Fear isn’t like biological fears; it doesn’t numb, and it doesn’t flee into panic. I guess it’s closer to the parables Y’shua likes: the meaning doesn’t float on the surface of the water, but each dive reveals something hidden.

In this case, sitting with it, dripping wet in the moonlight, I think we found ourselves more completely exposed than even terror of death could accomplish. “Even before a word is on my tongue” is a hymn of praise, a song of gratitude for safety—and a window into Great Fear. (“Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”) For us, like the psalmist, this Fear of the Lord drew us into subdued questioning: Who is this, whom even the storm and the sea obey, and who asks us if we have not yet trusted him?

[1] Additional references: the way out of Egypt (Exodus 14:21-31); Jonah’s boat (Jonah 1:4-15); Elijah (1 Kings 19:9-13); words on my tongue (Psalm 139:4&7); “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).


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