Two Sides, Same Coin
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
—Haruki Murakami, b. 1949, Japanese Author
When we read or hear the story of Jesus calming the sea, we ride the emotional roller coaster that is besetting the disciples with them. First, they are bewildered that out of the blue Jesus decides to hop in a boat and sail to the other side, to the GENTILE side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus hasn’t really shown much interest in Gentiles before this. What in the world does Jesus want way over there?
Then the storm rises, the sea walks and rages, the boat is swamped, and we, just like the disciples, are terrified, terrified by the overwhelming power of nature, by its devastating ability to make us feel small and helpless and overwhelmed. Some of us have had such experiences. Perhaps you’ve been in a hurricane or a tornado or a flood. Even if you haven’t, perhaps you’ve stood on the lip of a cliff overlooking the Grand Canyon and suddenly experienced that terrifying vertigo, that feeling that somehow the canyon is actually pulling at you, trying to pull you down, and unless you can get away right at that moment, it might actually succeed and there’d be nothing you could do to stop it. That overwhelming moment when nature seems to say to us, “Don’t exaggerate your importance. You measure time in decades; I measure time in geologic eons. I have existed long before you and will exist long after you. It’s not that I dislike you—it’s that to me you do not even exist.” In our mortal existence, only nature can give us even a hint of what the eternal and the all-powerful could be like. No wonder when we are confronted with its raw power, we are not simply terrified, we are irrationally terrified. In this story, we sense exactly that irrational terror in the disciples.
It’s that irrational, unthinking terror that causes them to wake up Jesus. No doubt they’re thinking, how can he sleep through this? No doubt they’re thinking, all hands need to be on deck for this! But truthfully, what do they expect him really to do? One more hand bailing water out of the boat really isn’t going to make any difference. Really, they just want him awake because if they are going to die, at least they will die together. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” they ask, their fear overwhelming their senses.
We readers, though, also sense Jesus’ frustration and irritation, as if he’s being awakened for nothing, as if the issue is not the storm at all, but rather that something has disturbed his sleep! Strikingly, Jesus speaks to the storm using the same words he has used when exorcising an unclean spirit from a man in the Capernaum synagogue: “Be silent!” he tells the storm. Back in the synagogue, an unclean spirit possesses a man and says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1: 24). When the unclean spirit says that Jesus responds, “Be silent and come out of him!” and the demon convulses the man but then leaves him, going wherever demons go after they’ve been exorcised.
Now Jesus is treating a storm at the sea in the same way. It’s almost as if the storm has a will of its own, as if it has arisen on the sea simply because Jesus is attempting to cross it. Perhaps the storm has arisen to try to stop Jesus from crossing. But maybe the storm arose to give tribute to Jesus, to honor him as Lord of nature; maybe this is its way of saying, for better or for worse, “I know who you are; you are the Holy One of God!”
Whatever the reason for the storm, the storm has no power over Jesus. We know that because, for goodness’ sake, if the disciples hadn’t awakened him, he would have slept right through it! And so Jesus simply says to the storm, “Be silent!” And the storm ends.
And there is a dead calm. A dead calm. Suddenly, there is a blue sky. Suddenly there is a flat sea. Suddenly, there is no wind. Suddenly, everything stops, and the boats with Jesus are sitting motionless on unmoving water, with no wind in their sails, and no sound but the sound perhaps of sea birds and the creaking of the boat in the water. And we, with the disciples, are afflicted again with terror, but terror of a different sort: for what sort of person is this whom even the winds and the seas obey?
And now we see the two sides of the same coin: the fear of nature—and the fear of Jesus.
In C.S. Lewis’ children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia, we are introduced to Aslan, the gentle but powerful lion who is the Christ figure in the Narnia stories. And we are told, reminded over and over again, that Aslan is not a tame lion. One of the heroines, Susan, is told by a new friend, Mr. Beaver, that she will meet Aslan, and that he is a lion.
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr. Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
This is the Jesus we meet in the story of the calming of the storm. He isn’t safe, but he’s good. You cannot tame Jesus. But you can trust him. If you’re willing to take the risk.
There is a terror of the storm, and we are all familiar with it. But there’s also a terror of the calm. A dead calm means that there’s no wind to blow into your sails and no wave or tide to drive your boat. You’re dead on the water, going nowhere. So the real challenge of a dead calm is deciding to take up your oars and row. Deciding which direction to go. Setting a course a certain way.
In a way, storms are manageable. Any kind of crisis has its own internal logic. Certain types of leaders emerge in a crisis, and if you have them, and if everyone’s on the same page, you have a reasonable chance of getting out intact. Or, on the other hand, you might fail; but then you can blame it on the crisis. We can say to ourselves: It was a crisis, it was beyond our control, we did the best we could. When St. Stephen was vandalized a few years ago, certain leaders came to the fore; a bunch of people sprang into action; everyone worked together; we had experts of various sorts to come in and give us advice, and friends of the church who gave us money, time and support. We had a crisis, and we got through it. The storm even helped us in clarifying our mission and our priorities. When it seems like everything’s at risk then a whole lot of things that once seemed like they were important suddenly aren’t; and a whole lot of things that you always thought you could take for granted are suddenly at risk and you have to save them. And we did a lot of that, and it was good for us.
That happens to us in life, too. A storm arises; a crisis comes. It helps us figure out what is important and what isn’t. But what do you do when the storm is over? What do you do in the dead calm that follows it? Because the problem with the dead calm is that circumstances are no longer guiding and directing you and forcing you to make certain decisions. The problem in the dead calm is that circumstances aren’t telling you what to do, and suddenly you have to decide it for yourself.
And that takes faith.
We know those times. We spend four or five years in college, or maybe in the military, where things are often chaotic and stressful and can be stormy; your whole future may depend on what you do in those four or five years. But then you get your degree, or your honorable discharge, and that storm is over and there you are—in the real world. College and the military gave you a sense of who you were and where you belong, but all of a sudden, YOU have to decide who you are, what you’re going to be, what you’re going to do.
Or the kids have left and suddenly you’re an empty nester. Or you retire, the thing you’ve looked forward to your whole life, and suddenly you realize: When people asked me, “what do you do?” I used to be able to say, “I’m this” or “I’m that.” But what do I say now? Who am I now?
The dead calm can be terrifying.
Scholars have determined that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel written. It is important to understand exactly what this means. Nothing like a Gospel had ever been written before. Some scholars have said that the gospels are the precursors to the modern novel. In fact, most scholars agree that the gospel itself was written as a response to a crisis. Some thirty or so years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Emperor Nero was trying to deflect blame for a massive fire in the city of Rome that happened under his watch. He decided to blame the fire on a tiny, politically powerless and basically almost unknown religious sect, the Christians. There followed a massive persecution of Christians. The three main leaders of the Christian church were all killed during this period: James, the brother of Jesus, was stoned by the high priest in Jerusalem; and Peter, who’d been Jesus’ premiere disciple, and Paul, who’d spread the gospel to the gentile world., were executed by Nero. The Christian community was in turmoil, persecuted or in hiding.
Responding to this crisis, Mark realized that with the death of key leaders a written record of the story of Jesus’ life was essential. Part of what he wanted to accomplish with his new gospel was to let Jesus’ own words and his own life help the Christians of his own day understand the meaning of their own suffering and what advice Jesus would give them in the present crisis. But he also wanted them to understand not only what they are suffering for, but also what they were living for. Yes, troubles will come your way when you’re a Christian. Storms will arise. The good news is that Jesus is Lord of the storm—even the winds and the sea obey him. Trust in Jesus and he’ll see you through the storm.
But the real test comes when the storm is over, and there is a dead calm. What do you do then? What choices will you make then? For the person who wrote the Gospel of Mark, the lesson we are to learn from Jesus’ life is that when the dead calm comes, and we have to make the choice about what to do next, we need to make the hard choice. We see Jesus doing this at every point: Just when everything seems to be settling into a nice rhythm for him, he ups his game, takes it to the next level. That’s what he does in this passage: he’d just really established himself in Galilee, among his fellow Jews; crowds were following him, and he’d outwitted his enemies. Then suddenly out of the blue he decides to go across the sea into what we’d call today modern Jordan and witness to Gentiles!
If you were in situation of dead calm, where you could either just be satisfied with the way things are, or take a risk—get a new job, or try something you’ve never done before, or work with the homeless when you’ve always been uncomfortable around them—I suspect Jesus would say to you, TAKE THE RISK. Take the risk. It’s worth it for the way it will challenge you and make you grow. Yes, it takes you into unknown territory. It’s not called “a risk” for no reason. And so the bigger risk you’re taking is that you are putting your trust in Jesus, who is more powerful than the wind and the seas, but also far more unpredictable. Jesus is not a tame god, one who bends his will to our preferences. If you serve an untamed Lord, then you can expect an untamed life.
If you want Jesus to promise you a good outcome, don’t bet on it—unless the good outcome you’re hoping for is to serve the Kingdom of God.
But Jesus would add an additional caveat: he would not advise you simply to take a risk—he’d expect you to take a risk that enables you to serve God and to help other people. The kinds of risks that Jesus calls us to will always have some kind of ethical dimension. And friends, you’ve done that. I can look around this congregation and see people who I know have said no to a job or a choice that they felt was ethically wrong. God bless you for stepping out on that limb to do what’s right.
And I also know a lot of you who have had the choice to live an easier life, but chose instead to do something good for the community, like serve on a citizens board; or volunteer to aid people different from yourself; or stand up for something or someone even though you knew that it would make a lot of people angry, but you felt it was the right thing to do. Or you chose to be a caretaker for someone, like an elderly parent or a disabled relative or friend, at cost to yourself.
You could have lived your life comfortably and happily without ever doing that, but you chose the more difficult choice. You were sitting in the dead calm, and you chose to take up the oars and sail to an unknown place fraught with challenges. And you did it because it was the right thing to do, for God, for others, and ultimately, in spite of your fears, for yourself.
And I strongly suspect, if I asked any of you about those choices, you would say they haven’t been easy choices, but that you don’t regret it. You would say, it’s been hard, but I know that God has been on my side. You would say, I chose this not knowing where it would take me, but I believe that it’s gotten me and others a bit closer to where God needs me to be. Even though it’s been sometimes painful, it’s also been joyful; and even though there may have been losses, I think it’s gotten me closer to who I am called to be before my God.
It won’t be an unqualified, “Oh it’s been great, and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.” The follower of Jesus isn’t promised that. When you serve an untamed Lord, expect an untamed life. We follow an untamed messiah and storms and unpredictability are part of the package. We don’t always get a life filled with peace, but I’m not sure we humans really want or need that. What we need is a life filled with meaning.
And that’s what we will find when we get into the boat with Jesus.