A sermon on friendship in Proverbs by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 17 June 2018

In all the world there is no one quite like you. There is no one else who has had all your experiences. There is no one else who hears your thoughts. There is no one else who knows your pain. There is no one else who knows what secrets you store in your heart. There is no one who understands you like you do, and I don’t know about you, but seriously, sometimes I don’t even understand myself.

Like I said, there is no one like you. So there is a strong temptation for some people to cut themselves off from others. To prefer their own company. To lose themselves in their own thoughts. To hide away in their own little world. Other people, however, don’t choose to be alone. They have loneliness forced upon them because of poverty or chronic illness or some other reason. But whether we choose it or not, isolation is dangerous for our physical and mental health. In fact having a network of friends is simply one of the most important aspects to a happy and healthy life.

Recent studies, for example, have shown that people who get out and about, who mix socially with people outside their home, are less prone to depression, high blood pressure, alcohol abuse and obesity. Even a relationship as shallow as the internet, like having a friend on Facebook or connecting with others through Twitter, can boost a person’s immune system and reduce their risk of cancer.

But we don’t need recent studies to believe in the importance of friendship. God has made us for himself and for each other. He has made us to live in families and in neighbourhoods and in towns. He has made us to enjoy companionship and to find strength in sharing our lives with others. And he has called us to live in the fellowship of his church where although we are many, we are one in Christ.

In the very beginning God looked at Adam and said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” And he made for him Eve from his own flesh and blood and before she was his wife and the mother of his children, she was his friend. And when we were lost in our sin, God came to us in Jesus Christ so that we would not be alone. He loved us before we loved him. He chose to be with us so that we might be with him. God made us for himself and for others, and we will not be happy until this is true in our lives.

And so the book of Proverbs provides us with wisdom for our friendships. It tells us why friends are important, who we should choose to be our friends, and what a good friend will do for us. But if God’s word should have anything to say to us on the matter, it should be that the best way to have a friend is to be a friend.

Let’s look firstly at true friendship. The book of Proverbs recognises a number of different human relationships. Our family. Our mother and father and brothers and sisters who share our genetic makeup. Then our neighbours with whom we share our humanity and our neighbourhood. Then our associates and companions with whom we share our daily lives. They are the people we work with, share a hobby with, and mix with socially. But there is something special, some indescribable bond we share with that one or maybe two or could it be true even a few really close friends.

Proverbs chapter 18 verse 24 says,

“A man of many companions may come to ruin.”

And it’s true. It is possible to have many companions, many associates, people we recognise by face, even by name, people we bump into, maybe even share a meal with. It’s possible to know many such people and some sudden disaster still comes upon us that even they can’t prevent. An accident. An illness. Loss of job. As Proverbs says,

“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

A close friend. A real friend. A true friend. It is at times of sudden disaster that we know who our real friends are. A real friend will drop everything to help us. A real friend will give us the shirt off their back to help us. A real friend will listen to us any time of day or night. German actress Marlene Dietrich said,

“It’s the friends you can call at 4:00 am that matter.”

True friendship is not about being there for someone when it’s convenient, but when it’s not convenient. And a friend like that can be better than a member of your family. Proverbs chapter 27 says,

“Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father. And do not go to your brother’s house when disaster strikes you. Better a neighbour nearby than a brother far away.”

For those of us who grew up in a loving family and have moved from the city to the country, distance from family is probably our greatest challenge. I don’t really miss anything that people think they have in the big city. But the times we noticed it were when Karen and I were both sick and the kids still needed to get to school. There’s no family nearby to drop everything and come and take the risk of catching the flu or something worse. But a real friend can fill that gap if not like your own mum and dad, but at least better than a brother or a sister who have their own life and their own family to look after. Friends who will give a helping hand when you’re moving house. A listening ear when you need someone to talk to. An emergency pick up when you’re caught out of town. A lend of a car when your own breaks down. A brother or a sister on the other hand. Well, you’ll never stop being related to them. You shared 10, 15, 20 years of life with them. Maybe even shared a bedroom. But when it’s 4:00 am and you need to call someone, 9 times out of 10 you’re better off calling a friend. Because a friend in need is a friend indeed.

Friends not only offer a helping hand in times of trouble, they also have an enormous influence on our lives. They help shape our likes and dislikes, where we go, what we do, how we spend our time and who we spend it with. And they influence our behaviour. They help create the values that determine our choices for good or for ill. So let’s look secondly at choosing friends.

Proverbs chapter 13 says,

A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul, but fools detest turning from evil. He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.

We become like our friends. We want to feel like we belong around them. We dress like them. We like – you know – talk like them. We become like them. So there are very few things more important than choosing the right friends. Wise friends, says Proverbs chapter 13, make us wise. We observe their behaviour. They open our eyes to the right choices. We learn from their experiences. We put it into practice and we reap the rewards. Foolish friends make us foolish. They drag us into the most ridiculous situations. They do something stupid and someone else gets hurt. They not only behave irresponsibly but they refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes. And the behaviour of those we associate with is contagious.

Proverbs chapter 22, for example, says

“Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man,  do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.”

Angry friends make us angry people and foolish friends make us foolish. The influence of fools is most especially damaging because as the verse before says, fools detest turning from evil. If we let them they will drag us into evil as well. Benjamin Franklin wisely said,

“Be slow in choosing friends, be even slower in changing them.”

Bad friends will lead us away from what is good. But good friends will lead us away from what is wrong. And one thing a good friend will do for us is that they will tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.

What do we want to hear? Well, we want to hear that we are a good person, that we always do what’s right and that we never do anything wrong. We want to hear that we are good looking, funny and an absolute genius. Or at least two out of those last three. But what do we need to hear? Proverbs chapter 27 says

“Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”

Meaning that an enemy will hide how they feel about you. They will pretend to love you while they try to harm you. You cannot trust what they do. You cannot trust what they say. But you can trust a friend. You can even trust their wounds, by which it means their words that hurt. Because someone might have to say to you, “That was wrong what you did.” Or maybe, “What you said was wrong. You owe that person an apology.” Or maybe, “What you said was right, but the way you said it was thoughtless and cruel.” Or maybe, “You need to change your behaviour or you are going to lose all your friends.”

If you care about the way you live and how your actions affect other people you need to hear those words. You need to be able to see yourself as others see you. You need to know the truth so you can do something about it. But who is going to tell you? Who is going to look you in the eyes and say those words? Your next door neighbour? The mother of your child’s friend that you talk to when you meet at the supermarket? That co-worker you share Friday night drinks with? Your enemy? No your enemy is too busy kissing you on the cheeks while they are stabbing you in the back. Only a friend, as Oscar Wilde said, will stab you in the front. Their words will hurt. They will cut deep. They will embarrass you and make you feel ashamed and turn your image of yourself upside down. But they may save your life if they cut out the infection of sin in your life.

The apostle James said,

“My brothers if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

Otherwise the New Testament doesn’t have a lot to say about having friends and why they are so important. More important in Jesus’ eyes than having the friend you want is being the friend you want to have. Being that person to others. Let’s look thirdly at being a friend.

“Who is my neighbour?” Jesus was asked. Meaning, “Who is the person I must love as I love myself?” Jesus told a story about a man who had no friends. All alone with no one to help him when robbers attacked him and left him for dead. Who acted as a neighbour when he needed help? Was it the priest, the man who stood between the people and God, who taught them the law and was meant to be an example of it? Was it the Levite, the man who assisted the priest in his ministry in the temple? It was neither of them. They both walked past on the other side of the road.

No it was the Samaritan, the stranger, the foreigner, the enemy from across the border, who bound his wounds and paid for his care. The man who in all the Bible was most like Jesus. Another man who was treated like a stranger, a foreigner, an enemy, but who got involved in our lives, our misery under sin, who bound our wounds of sin and healed them by taking our wounds on the cross.

What a friend we have in Jesus. All our sins and griefs to bear.

Who is my neighbour? Well, which one of those three men acted like a neighbour to the man attacked by robbers? Which one of them was a friend in need for a man who had no friends? The one who stopped to help him. Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”