Imperious Istanbul is a golden city. Arriving just after dawn on a mild summer's morning, we drove along the Marmara Sea coastline and then across the Golden Horn to the first hill in the historic old city. Around every corner something ancient and timeless appears to the observant traveller - the red stone Haghia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom), the six spired blue tiled Sultan Ahmed mosque, a 13th century BC Egyptian obelisk, its hieroglyphics towering over the Hippodrome, and the grey marbled Ottoman Sultan's Topkapi Palace. The meticulously manicured palace gardens are shaded by beautiful Lebanon cypress trees. Inside, priceless jewels adorn daggers, furniture, utensils, jewelry, clothing and crowns. Not everything is authentically 'golden'. The palace's relics room displays what is claimed are memorabilia belonging to Muhammad along with Abraham's 'cooking pot', Joseph's 'turban' and a gold plate caste of the Apostle John's 'arm'!
In one corner of the great square outside Haghia Sophia once stood the Golden Milestone, known as the Milion, a reference point from which distances from Byzantium were measured along the Via Egnatia, a Roman road built to link the Adriatic to the Bosphorus Sea. An original marble stela still marks the spot and a modern sign post has been added, pointing travellers in the direction of Rome, Tehran, Ephesus and, more seriously, to Syria. One needs walk only a short distance from that street sign to see Syrian children begging on Istanbul's streets, refugees from a regional conflict that threatens Turkey's south eastern border.
A third golden feature of this fascinating city is John Chrysostom, the Golden Mouthed, so named because of his eloquent sermons. Born in Antioch and educated by Diodore of Tarsus, John became Archbishop of Constantinople in AD 397. He was a fearless preacher, condemning the extravagances of the Byzantine royal court and the immorality of the theatre. "What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well."
Black clouds hung low over the Bosphoros, threatening an afternoon storm. Young boys seized on the chance to sell umbrellas to tourists unprepared for a sudden downpour. Surprisingly, only a few drops of rain fell, the inky sky quickly fleeing and returning to us a clear, blue canopy.
I was reminded by that impotent storm of how an American Indian responded to a sermon, saying: 'Big wind, loud thunder, no rain!' All that glitters is not gold in the peaching and hearing of God's Word. The temptation for the preacher is to put glitz before God; style without substance. The trap for the hearer is to think and act like a tourist, sampling but never settling; 'visiting' favorite texts without ever having a vital encounter with the eternal God. Constantinople's golden mouthed Chrysostom noted wisely: "For when hearers are in an easy time, they become listless and lazy and seem to be annoyed by the speaker. But when they are in affliction and distress, they long deeply to listen." Beware the easy time! Long to listen to the Lord!