Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings are Isaiah 11:1-10 and Nam Cheon’s “Flowering Tree.”

Isaiah 11:1-10 (NRSV)

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Return of the Remnant of Israel and Judah
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

“Nam Cheon’s Flowering Tree” from The Whole World Is A Single Flower

As the officer Yu Kan was talking with Zen Master Nam Cheon, he remarked, “Master of the teachings Gae Poep Sa once said, ‘Heaven, earth, and I have the same root; ten thousand things and I are one body.’ This is outrageous.”

Nam Cheon pointed to a flower in the garden. He called to the officer and said, “People these days see this flowering tree as a dream.”

1. “Heaven, earth, and I have the same root.” What does this mean?
2. “Ten thousand things and I are one body.” What does this mean?
3. “People these days see this flowering tree as a dream.” What does this mean?

COMMENTARY: Open your mouth, big mistake. Close your mouth, the whole universe and you are never separate. Wake up! Wake up! What do you see now? What do you hear now? Go ask the dog and the cat, and they will teach you.

It is winter. As I write this I feel the absence of the sun, and a deep distress in my community. Isaiah wrote in a time of deep distress in his community. Then, like now, the geopolitical situation was unstable. The Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel were drawn into picking sides with the greater powers of their time. The glow of the unified and triumphant Davidic kingdom was in the past, the present was dangerous and the future was bleak. At just such a time as this there blossomed hope for a future messiah-king, one who would restore justice and whose reign would usher in a time when natural enemies would snuggle up warmly with one another in the Peaceable Kingdom. This was an unrealistic dream, but a dream which held out possibility and hope.

Jesus too lived in a time of deep anxiety, in a conquered land which had no hope for justice and self-realization. It is easy to see why his followers and the authors of the Gospels would easily identify Isaiah’s prediction with their experience of Jesus. They understood Isaiah’s words in their bones, and understood that the messiah was meant for just such a time as theirs. When Jesus taught and performed miracles, how could they not connect him with the prediction in Isaiah? How could they not hope for the promised savior who would fix everything? Again, it seems, it was an unrealistic dream, but it held out hope.

I believe the world faces such a time as that of Isaiah and Jesus. Unlike the Gospel authors, I deeply mistrust the language we find in Isaiah. I  understand that, in the world view of a monarchy and the Roman Empire, the fulfillment of the hope and dream for justice would be a righteous king sent from God. Yet in a democracy, one person’s righteous king is another person’s strongman who comes to “slay the wicked.” Who are the wicked? Why do they need to be slain? And what of Jesus, the prince of peace we wait for during Advent? Two thousand years after his birth and crucifixion we still live with death and destruction. Where is the Kingdom of Heaven? Human beings still study war, and lions still eat meat.

I feel less alone in my skepticism this week in reading the story of Yu Kan, who seems as pessimistic about the Buddhist description of reality as I feel about the text from Isaiah. He calls the vision of “ten thousand things and I are one body” patently absurd. I hear him saying “your dream of unity is foolish. There is something wrong with the world, and you’re foolish to think otherwise.” This week this is my take on a messiah-king, the Peaceable Kingdom, and even the promise of Jesus as savior.

Nam Cheon, thankfully, has an excellent response for both Yu Kan and myself. He points Yu Kan to a flowering tree in the garden and says “today everyone sees this tree as a dream.” As any good Zen master does, Nam Cheon encourages me to see the flower just as it is, to pop the bubble of the dream. This beautiful flower is here now, but it will soon go die. This flower was tended by a gardener. Was she paid well, or is she a migrant worker who is unable to feed her family? What about the fertilizer which feeds this tree? Were the animals which provided it treated well, or did they suffer inhumane treatment in the fields? Was the land for the monastery gained honorably? There are many beautiful flowers in the garden of the Zen Center where I practice, yet the land was stolen by my ancestors from the people who lived here first. N

Nam Cheon pops the bubble of “flower” and allows me to see its many layers, and in doing so helps me pop the bubbles of “scripture” and “savior.” Do I read Isaiah in the traditional Christian manner, as a prophecy of the future to be fulfilled in Jesus? Or do I pop that bubble and hear the hope behind his words, regardless of their fulfillment? What do I do with his hope and my own hope? Do I buy into the Peaceable Kingdoms of Advent and Christmas and the glorious (not crying!) child in the manger, or do I remember he was born into a land of violence and despair? What do I do with the violence and hate-filled speech on the rise today? Do I continue to demand that God come and save us, or am I willing to pop even that bubble and ask how I can help in the saving?

Three questions for today:
1. What bubble can I pop right now?
2. Jesus is coming, but not yet. What does that mean?
3. People these days see Jesus as a dream. What does this mean?

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