A sermon on Alcohol in the book of Proverbs by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 24 June 2018.

The greatest social problem facing Australia today is not problem gambling. It is not bad parenting. It is not gangs of young people wandering the streets at night. It is not unemployment or welfare cheating or tax dodging or pornography or stealing or homelessness. It is not uncontrolled capitalism or hidden socialism or insane environmentalism. The greatest social problem facing our nation today is alcohol abuse.

Alcohol abuse is a disease of the mind that causes a person to continue to drink, despite the obvious negative consequences of drinking too  much. Alcohol is addictive. The long term heavy user becomes dependent on it. So although these high doses of alcohol are damaging, they sometimes cannot give it up even when they want to. Alcohol abuse causes brain damage, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, and cancer of the throat and stomach. Alcohol abuse is linked to depression, suicide, unwanted pregnancies, diabetes, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, domestic violence, sexual assault, child neglect, car accidents, heart attack, stroke, anxiety and panic disorders, impotence and birth defects. Alcohol is the risk factor responsible for the greatest burden of disease and injury in Australian males under the age of 45. After tobacco, alcohol is the second largest cause of drug-related deaths and hospitalizations in Australia. Road trauma is the leading cause of death among young Australians. Between a quarter and a third of fatal crashes on Australia’s roads involve drivers with blood alcohol levels above the legal limit. Alcohol abuse costs the Australian economy $36 billion dollars including compensation to the victims of crime, lost wages and productivity and hospital and medical expenses. Alcohol abuse is by far the greatest social problem facing Australia today.

That I should think so should not surprise you. I am the son of teetotallers. The grandson and great grandson of proud abstainers of the demon drink. I was taught as a child not to wish someone a Merry Christmas, but a Happy Christmas. Because if I said they could be merry I would be giving them permission to drink alcohol. I am also the minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, a church that a hundred years ago changed to using grape juice in Holy Communion, when wine had served the church perfectly well for one thousand nine hundred years.

But what may surprise you is that I am not going to stand here and say that drinking alcohol is a sin. For thousands of years alcohol has been the safest way to drink. Untreated water, especially from rivers, may contain microorganisms that cause typhoid fever, dysentery, cholera and more. The town water that you drink from your tap is actually a dilute solution of hypochlorous acid that sterilises the water. Before water was made safe to drink by modern treatment methods it was often mixed with wine or beer to make it safe for human consumption. Sterilised not by chlorine, which you think is safer, but by alcohol. Before pasteurisation was invented in the 1860s unfermented grape juice was only safe to drink on the day it was squeezed from the grape. Before that time people drank wine.

The Bible teaches that wine is a sign of the blessing of God. Psalm 104 teaches that the Lord provides wine to cheer the heart of man. Proverbs chapter 3 tells us to honour the Lord with our wealth and our vats will brim over with new wine. Proverbs chapter 30 tells the king to give wine and beer to the poor and the oppressed to relieve their suffering. Jesus, of course, turned water into wine, when many might have preferred that he turned the wine into water. And he didn’t make cask wine. He made the good stuff that most people served first until their guests were too merry to notice the difference. The Good Samaritan poured wine on the wounds of man robbed by bandits because of the antibacterial properties of alcohol. And the apostle Paul told Timothy to drink a little wine with his dinner to aid his digestion. It is not a sin to drink.

Nevertheless, the message of Proverbs is firstly is that drinking too much is foolish and wrong. Proverbs chapter 20 verse 1 says

“Wine is a mocker and beer is a brawler and he who is led astray by them is not wise.”

Wine is a mocker. A mocker is someone who makes fun of you behind your back. That’s what wine is. You may think that alcohol is your best friend. You may think that no party is fun without it. You may think that it helps everyone relax and have a good time. But if for one moment you think you can safely turn your back and drop your guard, and everything will be alright, alcohol will trip you up and make fun of you. Because it is a mocker.

Alcohol is like that friend who is fun to be with at parties while he’s making fun of other people. Mimicking them. Calling them funny names. Playing practical jokes. It’s hilarious. But it’s no fun at all when the jokes are on you. The reference here is to the intoxicating effect of too much alcohol. Common symptoms of alcohol intoxication include poor judgment, slurred speech, impaired balance, loss of coordination, nausea, vomiting, reddened eyes, and erratic behaviour. Watching a drunk trying to cross a room or listening to them trying to tell a joke can be hilarious, until they hurt themselves or someone else. But being the drunk that everyone is laughing at is no fun at all because the joke is on you.

Wine is a mocker and beer is a brawler. If wine is like the friend who makes fun of other people, then beer is like the stranger at the pub who is spoiling for a fight, who isn’t happy unless the fists are flying and people are getting hurt. Beer is a brawler because the intoxicating effects of alcohol mean that often someone gets hurt. Under the influence of alcohol people say and do things they wouldn’t normally do. They get into fights they would normally walk away from. They fall down when they would normally walk safely. They crash cars they would normally steer straight. Beer is a brawler and the thing about brawlers is that they don’t fight fair. They don’t wait till you’re looking. They don’t wait till you’re ready. They will take you by surprise when you least suspect. And by the third drink you have already lost the ability to protect yourself from the effects of alcohol.

If Proverbs chapter 20 is about the dangers of intoxication, chapter 23 seems to be about the dangers of alcohol abuse.

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine. Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. Your eyes will see strange sights and your mind imagine confusing things. You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging. “They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt! They beat me, but I don’t feel it! When will I wake up so I can find another drink?”

Many of the verses describe the effects of intoxication. Reddened eyes. Hallucinations. Confusion. Loss of balance. Hangover. But there are hints of abuse as well. In verse 30 the drinker lingers over his wine. Verse 31 describes a longing look. Suggesting anticipation and deliberation and purposefulness. As if the drinker is intoxicated just by the look of his drink. And verse 35 describes addiction. Despite the drinker’s suffering, despite the damage and hurt he feels, he can’t wait for his next drink. The tragedy is, as verse 29 puts it, that the suffering is so needless.

Of course, the heavy drinker always tells himself that he can stop whenever he wants. The problem is that the alcoholic never does stop until he can’t stop. Drinking heavily and regularly is like playing a game with a snake. Trying to sneak up behind it and pick it up by its tail. It’s exciting and exhilarating and a whole bundle of laughs right up until the moment the snake turns and sinks his fangs into you. In the same way alcohol can seem like fun until you can’t get its poison out of your veins.

This is why Proverbs chapter 31 recommends complete abstinence to kings.

“It is not for kings to drink wine, it is not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.”

The concern here is how alcohol affects the drinker’s judgment and how a king depends on his judgment. In fact, it is not the king alone who depends on his judgment. It is the innocent who depend on his judgment. It is the victims of crime and injustice who depend on his judgment. A ruler’s people depend on his clear mind to make good decisions for their safety and security. It’s a good reminder that alcohol abuse is not a victimless crime. “It’s my own body,” the heavy drinker says. “I’m not hurting anyone but myself.” But the truth is that they are hurting everyone around them. Everyone who cares about the alcoholic, everyone who depends on him, is hurt by his abuse of his own body. And Proverbs advice to those on whom a whole nation depends is that one drink is one too many. He should not prohibit alcohol to others. “Give beer to those who are perishing” says verse 6  “give wine to those who are in anguish.” It may be the only comfort they have in their misery. But it would be best if the ruler prohibit it from himself.

The natural conclusion is that if alcohol is so dangerous why drink at all. Less harmful drugs than alcohol are illegal. People who make them, people who sell them, people who are found with significant amounts of them, are arrested and sent to gaol. Why should we not ban alcohol to ourselves if not to other people? And so I have a great respect for people who abstain. And I don’t mean that in a patronising way. The plain, simple truth is that you will never get drunk if you never, ever drink. And with safe drinking water, fruit juices, and soft drinks available it is a viable option. If you can’t have one drink without having three or more you should seriously consider complete abstinence. If you still drink even when you don’t want to you need professional help. Make an appointment with your doctor tomorrow.

But prohibition, forcing others to abstain and condemning those who won’t, is as foolish as drunkenness. Jesus made wine. The disciples drank wine. St Augustine drank wine. Martin Luther drank wine and beer. John Calvin drank wine. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, drank wine. Every Christian who celebrated Holy Communion up until a hundred years ago drank wine. And for alcoholics who get drunk on wine, giving them grape juice for Communion is as bad as offering them a drink of brandy. My own advice to my own children would be: Never drink on your own. Never drink without food. Never drink when you are sad. Never drink on the job. Never drink when you are going to drive. Always pay for your own drinks. And, girls, never leave your drink out of your sight.

But the best way of avoiding alcohol abuse, is not to follow these silly rules, but to live under the influence of a stronger spirit. In Ephesians chapter 5 Paul says,

“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.”

He does not mean we can get drunk on other things other than wine. He means don’t get drunk, for example, on wine. This leads to debauchery. Debauchery is reckless indulgence without limit and without thought for the consequences. If your brain isn’t in charge of your life then the alcohol is. Debauchery is not the act of a single choice at one particular moment in time. It is pattern of behaviour over a length of time. It demonstrates lack of self control and lack of self-respect. It is a sin against God’s good gift. Paul says,

“Do not get drunk on wine. Instead be filled with the Spirit.”

He doesn’t mean scotch or bourbon. He means the Holy Spirit. The breath of God. The wind of change who passes through the person who submits their life to Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour and Lord, putting to death the habits in our life that do not please God, raising to life the virtues of love, joy, peace and patience that bring glory to God. The Spirit is our twelve step program all wrapped up in one divine person. The Spirit is the higher power on whom alcoholics can depend for strength to resist their addiction. The Spirit is the power when we feel powerless and not in control of our lives. The Spirit is the one who can remove our character defects and shortcomings. The Spirit is the one who can give us the courage to make amends to the people whom we have harmed. The Spirit is the one who can reveal the will of God for our lives and give us the power to carry it out.

The greatest social problem facing Australia today is alcohol abuse. And the difference between drink and drunk is one tiny letter. U. Which means that you are responsible for staying in control of your life. Don’t live under the influence of alcohol. Wine is a mocker and beer is a brawler. You can’t trust it out of your sight. Live under the influence of God’s Holy Spirit. Let him control all you do and think and say.