Fear; palpable, sickening fear. Your legs feel like water. Sweat beads break out all over your body. You wet yourself. But don’t worry, you won’t wet yourself again, because you won’t get another drink for days. In fact the next drink will be your last!
Sea water pouring into your nose and mouth, distending your belly. You are gasping, asking why mummy has allowed this. And then it’s all over. Another child fleeing with its mother from war, danger, or famine becomes a sea-sodden corpse off the Italian coast. Another statistic.
On the very same day that these bodies are hauled out of the sea, putrid bodies are discovered in a lorry in Austria. Business is really good if you are a people trafficker, though if news leaks back of the numbers who never make it, things could become a bit lean.
But, never mind! That’s life and that’s the nature of this business. Anyway, if you’re at the top of your game, you’ve already made a pile and can retire to a fancy villa in Marbella and wile away your time messing around on boats, and enjoying caviar and Dom Perignon champagne. Life is good!
All this seems a far cry from the idyllic world of children’s Christmas carol concerts, doesn’t it? And from nativity crib scenes, complete with shepherds and the baby Jesus?
All of which may confirm you in your belief that Jesus and the Bible have nothing to do with the real world, but are all right for children and for a bit of escapism and ‘feel good’ on dark December nights.
If so, you are massively mistaken. The authentic story of Jesus’ birth says, in effect, ‘Welcome to the real world!’
This is a world that has not changed in 2000 years. This is a world where a paranoid and power-hungry little king of a little country, in a back water of the Roman empire, will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power. And stopping at nothing means that Jesus, as a very young child, has to be taken with Joseph and Mary to Egypt for safety before the king’s henchmen descend upon Bethlehem’s vicinity and butcher all the boys under two.
What convulsions of grief for parents, grandparents and siblings! Just like the almost routine news flashes of these days! Meanwhile the king…
Well, they didn’t celebrate with caviar and Dom Perignon champagne in those days, but you get my point. Evil then; evil now.
But it gets worse. The evil isn’t just ‘out there’ with other people. It’s ‘in here’, in me and you. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. ‘I’m not a people trafficker. I don’t kill children, or anyone else for that matter’.
No, indeed. And thank God that there are people who freely give their time and money to help the marginalised and disadvantaged. I’m not denying any of this. But the Bible sometimes describes the evil in the human heart by painting it in its classic, full-grown form, so that we may see it for the foul thing it is.
Most people, exposed to enough pressure and temptation, show signs of cracking. There is something wrong with us deep down. The philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke of ‘the crooked timber of humanity’. We are like a volcano: all may seem quiet now, but we are quite capable of erupting and belching forth indescribable evil.The fact that it may not reach such proportions in our own lives does not mean it isn’t there in essence. Nor may we congratulate ourselves that this is because of our moral superiority.
Just as the San Andreas Fault line runs through California and, from time to time, has led to devastating earthquakes, so a fault line runs through the human race.
The very Christmas story emphasises that Jesus came to save people from their sins. There it is again: ‘sins’, evil. This phenomenon we see in the world, and which is in us all, is something writ large across the pages of the Bible.
But, thank God, there’s good news, and the good news is all bundled together in that child of the Virgin Mary. The child became a man — a real man, if ever there was one.
It gets better. Here for once — and only once — was a real man utterly untouched by even the ghost of an echo of a whisper of evil. Here is one who was breathtaking in his purity, utterly incorruptible.
Other power-hungry people, however, had him put to death, a death too terrible to describe — death by crucifixion. Strange to say, however, he’d said in advance that he had come to die this death, and that no one would take his life, even if they thought they were.
All along, he was in control: because this man was also God, the God-Man. Here was no ordinary man, and here was no ordinary death!
Worse than the degrading death on a Roman cross was the fact that he was assuming liability for the evil, for the sins of the world, and, in that capacity, receiving the very judgement of God for that evil.
When a prisoner is released from prison, he’s received his punishment and paid his penalty. Three days after he died, Jesus rose triumphantly from death and the grave. The penalty had been fully paid and the punishment of sin had been borne.
He lives for ever and is able to rescue, to save, everyone who comes to God by him. To depend on him, to trust him to save you, means you are one of his people, one of those whom he came to save.
One day everybody — people traffickers ‘at the top of their game’, as well as ‘the middle men’, the victims, and you and me — will be called before him to be judged.
The balance sheet against us is damning indeed. But to entrust yourself to Jesus Christ means that all your debts have been paid and cleared, and you will be acquitted on that day. Indeed, the moment you trust Jesus this happens.
In this sad world of sad, bad news, this is the best news you will ever hear. Don’t ignore it or let the opportunity slip through your fingers. Have a truly happy and blessed Christmas!
Stephen Clark is pastor of Freeschool Court Evangelical Church, Bridgend. He is the principal of the Evangelical Movement of Wales’s Theological Training Course. He also lectures in systematic theology at London Theological Seminary (LTS)