As so many of us are busy decking the halls with pine boughs and pine cones and other decorations of the season, it is difficult to get people to focus on more serious matters such as our own personal salvation. So maybe we can use the signs of the season to help us to understand the message in the Scripture for the Second Sunday of Advent. It is particularly challenging with so many twinkling lights and glitter to get people to focus on a message of repentance from sin, even if it leads to our salvation. 

Imagine for a moment that a simple pine cone can be filled with theological meaning for us as Christians. Let us first think of what a pine cone is; it is a seed, or several seeds contained in a strong and thick shell. Pine cones are only produced by conifers; that is pine trees. The pine tree produces many pine cones and as the pine cones are ready for seeding, the pine tree drops its cones. For the pine cone to germinate, the strong outer shell must open and release the seeds. For that to happen, the pine cone needs heat to open; not simply the heat of the summer, but rather intense heat, such as a forest fire produces. 

Forest fires are destructive; they destroy entire forests and leave the landscape barren and desolate. But if we wait a week or two and go back to a forest which has been destroyed, we will see new life sprouting out of the ground. All those pine cones which had fallen to the ground before the forest fire have opened and have germinated in that barren and desolate ground. Fire can destroy and at the same time bring about new life. 

John the Baptist gives a message of what at first seems to be condemnation and destruction. The words of John the Baptist are the pine cone which carries the seeds of new life in a message with a tough outer shell. John the Baptist says, “therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt. 3:10-11) Fire clears the forest and readies the ground for new plantings. Our lives are the forest and the fire of the Holy Spirit clears away the dead wood of sin.  

The promised Messiah brings this about, “On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Isaiah 11:1) Isaiah speaks of how new life comes from even that which might look dead, a tree stump. Isaiah writes at a time when the people of Israel were in despair and Jerusalem has been destroyed, but Isaiah knows that God remains faithful to his promise and looks forward to the time when this promise will be fulfilled. The signs of new life are seen in the fulfillment of God’s promise. The promised Messiah who will sprout from the shoot of Jesse will be a king who will have the spirit of the Lord. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:2) These signs are what we know as the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that gives new life and it is this promised king who will baptize in spirit and fire.  

St. Paul tells us in the second reading from Romans 15:4-9, “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The message of new life in the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are given to a people who long to see the face of  the Messiah. Psalm 72 tells us what this just king will bring into the world, “justice shall flourish in his time, and the fullness of peace forever.”