Lenten Wednesday Noon Sermon – March 4, 2020

Ad gloriam Dei
Sermon preached at St. John’s Church, Montgomery, Ala., March 4, A.D. 2020
Wednesday at 12:05pm / Job 2:7-13 / Victor Lee Austin


Imperfect Friends

It is good to be with you on this Wednesday in the first full week of Lent. Yours truly is a lover of puns, the worse the better, and so I am pleased to share with you the news that it seems fitting that today stands in a prominent place in this Lenten season, for it is the only day of the year that is a command: March forth!

We Christians are marching forth into Lent, a season of self-denial, a season of pondering on our sins and our need for God. It could seem odd to you to hear a reading just now from the book of Job. For it is essential to understanding the book of Job to recognize that he is a man without sin. The book opens with a colloquy between the Lord God and the accuser. (“Satan” just means “accuser”; in this book we shouldn’t think of him as a rebel or an antagonist to God.) The opening colloquy has the Lord asking the Accuser where he’s been, and he answers he’s been down on earth, just wandering around, seeing what he could see. Well, says the Lord, did you see my servant Job? There is no one else like him, God says, he is perfect and upright, he fears God and eschews evil! 

God is saying: Job is without sin.

Satan replies in good accuser-fashion: Is Job righteous for nothing? No way! God has blessed all his doings, and so forth. Well, finally, the Lord allows the accuser to afflict Job with many evils: the loss of his property, the loss of his children, and a terrible skin disease (that’s where we picked up today, with Job scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery). But God proves right about Job, he does not curse God. Cursing God is suggested to him, as we heard, but Job says: if we receive good from the hand of the Lord, shall we not also receive evil if it comes? Who are we to choose what we receive from the Lord?

Now if you’ve read the book of Job, you know that what comes next are a couple dozen really long chapters of speeches between Job and his three friends who, as we heard, came to comfort him. The dialogue between them quickly turns sour. The friends seem to think that Job must have done some terrible sin or else all this would not have come upon him. And Job, with escalating passion, asserts his innocence of such wrong. Finally it seems the possibility of conversation comes to a dead end. Their dialogue just breaks off. And their long speeches seem to have been pointless.

But what I think we should see today, here still at the beginning of Lent, is how it all began. Let’s look at it again.

Terrible things come upon Job—for whatever reason. Job has three friends who hear about his affliction. They arrange with each other to go to see Job. When they first see him, still some distance away, his afflictions are visible and pitiful. They are moved to weeping. They come close to him. They tear their garments. They throw dirt on their heads. It sounds a bit like Ash Wednesday, although it’s not for anyone’s sin, not for theirs, not for Job’s. It’s simply their solidarity with Job. And they sit with him, they just sit with him, for a week, saying nothing. In the event it is Job, not they, who breaks the silence.

You may know that people who think about friendship and write about it often cite as the supreme friendship of the Old Testament that of David and Jonathan. And after David and Jonathan, they mention Naomi and Ruth. But what is perhaps surprising is, if you look at the actual biblical text, those relationships are not called friendship. It is clear (for instance) that Jonathan loves David, but it not at all clear that David loves Jonathan in any sort of equal return. Ruth and Naomi is a more complex relationship, perhaps closer to friendship, but there also the word “friend” is not used. It is used in Job, and you heard it today. Let me read it again (KJV):

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him …

Note: Job has three friends. Friends exist in plurality; friendship is a naturally expansive relationship. Counting Job, we have here a picture of four friends. The other three hear of the evil that befalls their friend, and

they came every one from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite: for they had made an appointment together …

This is what friends do. They hear that their friend has had evil come upon him, something terrible has happened, and they communicate with each other to arrange to visit and be with their friend. What do these friends intend to do? The text says:

they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him.

So, two things. First to mourn with him: this is simple solidarity. You are my friend, something awful has happened to you, I come to mourn with you. I come to stick with you. I don’t come to cheer you up, to shake you out of it, to persuade you that it isn’t as bad as you think. I first come just to be with you, to add my mourning to your mourning, to be one with you in your affliction. Second, they come to comfort him. Comfort means to strengthen (NB “fort”). They want to build Job up. In the event, they are not able to comfort him, but they do mourn with him. They see how bad he is, they wail, they weep, the tear their garments and put dirt on their heads and, the text says, 

sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.

This, I believe, is a profound picture of friendship in the Bible. Life can be awful, calamity can strike, and the first thing we should do is to come together with one another. We should mourn with each other. This is the primordial sense of friendship. Before anything else, friends just are with each other. 

But let us also be truthful. Job’s friends, who start out doing exactly the right thing, turn out to be imperfect friends. Job is the first to speak, and that’s correct—they are right to wait for him. Yet very quickly they take offense at what he says. Still, even in the escalation of their discourse, as their various speeches get hotter and hotter, note that they do not run away. None of Job’s friends goes back home. They may not understand him. They certainly do not speak rightly about God (God himself says so at the end). But they don’t abandon their friend.A closing thought. Job is a singular character: it is not likely that God is calling any of us to be like him. But God surely is calling us to be like Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar. To pay attention to what happens to our friends. To work together to help a friend who is afflicted. To mourn with those who mourn (as Saint Paul himself will say). We are very likely to turn out to be imperfect friends. But the key to a proper Lenten spirituality is to emphasize the correct word: not so much imperfect friends, as imperfect friends.