When I was a boy, only a real, live tree would do in the Letson house at Christmas. Now, had there been a vote among the five of us, I suspect an artificial tree may have garnered at least some support but not enough to replace a real tree.
My earliest memories are of us actually cutting a tree off of our land or that of my grandfather which bordered our property. As I got older, we went through a period where we bought a tree from a local nursery that could be planted after the holidays. There very well may still be a tree or two in my parents’ yard that once spent a December in our den decorated for Christmas. Eventually, by my High School and College years, my parents transitioned to the typical pattern of most folks with a live tree. They went to Lowe’s, Home Depot or the like and picked up a tree cut several weeks before that had been groomed for the holidays and that would likely hang on with enough water and care until Christmas or maybe New Years before all of the needles fell out.
From my perspective, one of the reasons only a live tree would work is that back in the mid 1970s to mid 1980s, when I was a child, artificial trees were clearly fake. Either their color or their shape or both gave them away as a stand in for the real thing.
Today, the difference is much more deceptive. These days it is very, very common to go into a family’s home at the holidays and to not be 100% sure if the tree you are staring at is artificial or real.
Our text for today, from John 1 verses 8 and 9 reminds us that it is not only difficult to tell the difference between real and fake trees but it is even more difficult to tell the difference between the real light and imitation light.
In our text, John is not talking about Christmas lights but rather the light of world, Christ our Lord. As John, wrestles with this idea, he works very had to say to us that while Jesus came as the light of the world, the world was infatuated by all kinds of other lights that in reality were nothing but imitations. They struggled to embrace the real light because of their infatuation with all of the fake light around them.
In fact, as John and other’s among the four gospels make clear, even John the Baptist himself, was mistaken for the real light and had to be clear on several occasions that his job was pointing to the light rather than being the light.
In the midst of this conversation about real versus imitation, John make another subtle point I think. That truth is the reminder that all of us embrace some type of light that is at the center of our lives. We give ourselves over to whatever is the light of our life and that object really does illuminate our paths.
Yet, just because we give ourselves over to a central light and allow that light to illumine our path, this is never a guarantee that it is the real light and not an elaborate fake.
Advent and the gospels demand that we ask ourselves which we are following, a fake or the real thing? After all, at Christmas and Advent, we not only bump up against plenty of artificial trees, we also realize we are prone to be fooled by artificial lights.