String walked into a bar.
He ordered a cocktail, but the bartender refused.
“We don’t serve your kind here,” she snapped.
So String slinked outside, wandered down the sidewalk, and looked around.
There was no other establishment in sight, and he was really thirsty.
As a stranger approached, String had an idea.
“Hey, pal, can you help me?”
“Sorry, I have no spare change.”
“No, I’ve got money—I need you to rough me up.”
“Tie me up, mess my hair, pull me apart, make me look completely ragged.”
“Are you sure?”
The stranger obliged, and now String looked in a store window at his tangled,
twisted, disheveled reflection and smiled.
“Thank you, kind sir!” he chirped and returned to the bar, sat down, and ordered a drink.
“Hey, aren’t you the fellow I just threw out of here?”
“No. I’m a frayed knot.”
String is not alone.
Don’t we all, at one time or another, in one way or another, compromise ourselves a bit to get something we really want?
Maybe a preacher desperate for attention sinks to telling terrible jokes. (Could happen.)
Maybe a church pollutes creation with styrofoam to save money or time.
Maybe someone with more ambition than talent sleeps their way to success.
Maybe a parent breaks a promise to a child to pursue something more interesting.
Maybe an official bends a rule to maintain their power or income stream.
Maybe we fight fire with fire, cruel words with crueler ones.
Maybe we try to protect someone vulnerable we love with a little lie, then rationalize it,
which is probably a second lie we now tell ourselves.
Maybe we vote for a terrible candidate by convincing ourselves the other one is worse.
Maybe we work too hard, or too little; maybe we ruin ourselves serving everyone
else, or ruin ourselves by neglecting others, and always with a good explanation.
Maybe you can list a hundred more examples where someone could argue, “but the ends
justify the means.”
The drink is worth the deception.
The possibility before us is worth being untrue to others and ourselves, which is
to say, worth suspending our trust in the God who made us as we are.
The Bible is a very thick book full of stories in which the people of God get tangled up
into far less than God dreamed for them.
Two of the most memorable are in Luke’s mind as he weaves the story of Jesus being
tested by the devil, and he tips them off right away.
After Jesus’ baptism, at which he is named son of God, Luke lists his genealogy all the
way back to Seth, son of Adam, son of God.
Suddenly Jesus, is in the wilderness for forty days, and there’s a foundational story
threading in each ear: the man in the garden, the many in the wilderness.
The individual at home in paradise who rebelled against God, and the community
lost outside Mojave who rebelled against God.
These are two major strands of the story of God’s people in which the first limit is
disobeyed: eat from any tree but that one, have no other gods before me.
Adam ate from that tree, and Aaron helped a caravan of migrants in the middle of
nowhere secure, melt and sculpt enough wealth to create a golden calf.
What is a God to do with a people like this?
Well, how does a bartender solve a problem like String?
Cut him off.
More than once God is also tempted to inflict irreversible damage.
God punishes, disciplines, evicts, kills, legislates, pleads, warns, woos, threatens, ignores,
prevents disasters, permits disasters, micromanages, steps back, and every other
trick in the parenting book.
The long story looks like a garage full of Christmas lights in November.
Some of it works.
But there are so many knots and loopholes and cracked bulbs and tangles the sanest thing
to do is sell the house and move.
Or set fire to it and collect the insurance.
But God loves the string.
Our God does not discard or destroy; our God saves.
That is the message and also the mission of Jesus.
He came to our garage to untangle us.
This testing story is the beginning, where the devil tries to trip and entangle him
too, and he carefully, patiently, persistently outlasts him to begin untangling the
story God is determined to save.
He unravels the devil’s work in the garden—where Adam had all he wanted except one
tree—by obeying the Spirit’s direction not to eat anything at all in the desert.
He unravels the devil’s work in the desert—where Israel did put God to the test—by
trusting the voice at his baptism.
He unravels the devil’s work in the world—where kingdoms and glory are built on
compromises—by rejecting easy power in favor of costly loyalty to God.
In every case, there is a case to be made that the ends justify the means: bread after 40
days of nothing is not unreasonable; authority over everything makes reform so
efficient; the temple stunt reinforces faith and is backed by Scripture!
Please note that the devil quotes Scripture.
This does not mean Scripture is bad; it means it is very, very good.
The devil, who wears Prada, only deals in high quality: excellent fruit, fresh bread,
significant power, holy Scripture, all of God’s finest things.
Which is how good people and a good story get so easily and so desperately tangled up.
This gospel of the testing of Jesus is far more than some example to follow, some
inspiration about how you can resist that cookie if you can just be more like Jesus.
This is a miracle story.
This is a story about Jesus doing something humans can’t do.
This is a story about salvation.
Jesus is untying the knots of history.
Jesus is untangling the threads of the frayed relationship between God and God’s people.
Jesus is reversing the mistakes of both paradise and desert, starting now in the
desert with the devil and ending in paradise with an untied thief.
And one day at a time, one knot at a time, one twist at a time, one word, one wafer, one
sip at a time, the Spirit of Jesus continues to untangle us.
Sometimes we are twisted in ways that make no sense to us.
Sometimes it feels like God is making things worse instead of better, which, in the
short term, might be true.
Sometimes it feels like everything is unraveling.
Sometimes we trust this as good news; sometimes, we’re a frayed knot.
God refuses to sever us or abandon us, however, so salvation takes a long time and a lot
of effort we don’t always understand, which is why Lent takes so long and ends at
And Easter is longer because it never ends.