God’s love not dependent on appearance

God loves ordinary people. It is almost too good to be true.

Maybe that’s why no world religion but Christianity has dared to believe it.

When God comes at Bethlehem, he does not come into a clean stable filled with only hygienic and non-allergenic hay, only well-behaved animals and no “droppings,” only high quality, top-of-the-line shepherds.

Those guys were not shined up and scrubbed clean sheep-herders who might have been Fortune 500 CEOs if, after they left Harvard, they hadn’t opted for the shepherding industry instead. The angels? They were as scary as they were amazing. And the Holy Family? Holy, yes, but haloed, no. They had the kind of holiness that deals with real life and makes it better, not less real. Real life can be really messy.

My sermon text last Sunday was the 23rd Psalm. Beautiful, it is. Inspiring. Peaceful and idyllic. Yes. But then I remembered the title of a book by Lynn Anderson, a title that says regarding God’s people, “They Smell Like Sheep.

Yes, God is our shepherd. Yes, we are his sheep. Sheep R Us. That is reality. But it is not a great compliment.

Yes, God leads us to beautiful pastures. Yes, he finds for us water and sustenance. Yes, he protects us, guards us, guides us. Yes, praise God.

But why? Because we’re sheep. We’re dumb. We’re weak. We’re prone to witless wandering. He loves us — even though we smell like sheep.

And, get this: When God the son comes into this world, he prefers the company of smelly sheep to white-washed Pharisees. That just amazes me. And it is nothing less than scandalous. It was then. It still is.

It is not scandalous at all for other religions to say just what we’d expect: “You must work hard to deserve the almighty’s love and acceptance. Work hard enough, and you just might get it. Here’s what you need to do.”

But it is scandalous indeed when St. Paul says that being made right with God “does not depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:16). Or when he warns us not to be like God’s “chosen” people who “since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own . . . did not submit to God’s righteousness” (10:3). “Do it yourself” righteousness or God’s. We must choose. The first is a sham. But God’s is real and filled with life. Sanctimony or sanctification. Arrogance or humble thanksgiving. Those are the choices.

“Careful now,” folks told the great apostle, “you can push this grace stuff too far.”

No, you can’t. What we really need to be careful about is making Christianity just one more among many “do it yourself” religions focused on man, not God. The Christian life is not lived on a line with grace at one end and legal “righteousness” at the other. Real grace enfolds all of life. The more we trust in God’s grace, the more we experience his joy, and the more we find joy in following him as he leads in the best dance of all.

Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at