When Chrysostom arose to preach that day, he was ready—even though he had had less than twenty-four hours to prepare. And when he preached, he delivered one of the most famous sermons of all time.
The occasion was the fall of Eutropius, the imperial minister in Constantinople who had attacked the church and had even forbidden her to offer refuge to political prisoners. Yesterday he broke his own law and fled to Chrysostom’s church for sanctuary. Chrysostom admitted him, and when the soldiers in hot pursuit reached the door of the church, they were met by Chrysostom, who declared, “You enter here over my body” (the origin of our expression ‘over my dead body’). Now one day later, the entire town has gathered to hear Chrysostom preach. What will he say?
Many standing in the tightly packed crowd are furious. They are convinced that Chrysostom missed a great opportunity to rid the community of one of the church’s vilest enemies. Why has he received Eutropius? What can he say in his defense? They have come to find out.
From the front of the church, those who are regular attendees notice a curtain has been drawn across the altar. What does that mean? Ah, here comes Chrysostom; we shall find out soon.
After normal proceedings according to his usual custom, Chrysostom takes his place at the ambo, the reader’s desk, so that he may be closer to the congregation when he preaches. He is ready to speak. No, wait a moment! The curtain—they’re drawing it aside and—listen to that crowd! They all understand now. There he is! There’s Eutropius clinging to a post supporting the altar. Is Chrysostom going to preach with him there like a pinned butterfly … like that?
“Vanity of vanities; all is vanities” declares the preacher. And then he continues, preaching … not to the crowd, but … to Eutropius! He asks him where all his fair-weather friends are now, shows how vain all his pursuits were, pleads with him to repent, and then turns to the congregation and addresses them. He tells them that he has done this not to rub salt in Eutropius’ wounds but to offer them a living demonstration of his text. This he does as a warning to all who are yet afloat, that they may not sink as this poor wretch has. He shows how the trembling tree, clinging to the altar post, has shaken loose all its leaves and is barren, and then urges rich and poor alike to take heed.
Then he takes up objections. Why did he receive this fugitive? Because he represents the Lord Jesus Christ in whom there is mercy and forgiveness. Eutropius does not defile the altar any more than did the sinful woman who touched the feet of Jesus defiled Him. Indeed the Holy Savior can forgive even an enemy like him and make him pure. Others may have no pity, but Christ’s church will show pity and receive him into her bosom. On and on he goes, until at last tears stream from the cheeks of the people and Chrysostom knows that their hearts have been softened.
What a sermon!
Read it sometime. It will be worth your while. And, by the way, it will be worth studying the preaching of Chrysostom to see how he met other occasions (see, for example, the sermons on the statues).
“But no one ever enters my church with soldiers chasing him,” you say. “How, then, can I do occasional preaching?” In his sermons on the statues, Chrysostom had no such dramatic episode within his church auditorium either. But he saw danger, warned about it from the pulpit (he urged the congregation not to follow foreign agitators against the unfair tax levied on the city) and, when his advice was not heeded and the emperor’s statues were destroyed, preached repentance and faith. You may warn and urge too when you perceive dangers into which your people possibly might fall.
“But Chrysostom preached about every day affairs in the city.” Yes, and he did so from an expository stance that was aimed at the people to whom he was speaking. He preached to people on significant occasions—biblically. And there is no reason why you cannot do the same.
There are many occasions about which the people in your congregation would like to hear what God has to say—so that they will know how He wants them to respond. When a president is shot, everyone (rightly) expects the preacher to say something about this from God’s Word. The newspaper and the telecasters have all had their say; shouldn’t God have His? When tornadoes or floods devastate a community, should the preacher keep silent? Of course not. He must bring God’s message of the hour to bewildered believers.
Christians expect, and should expect, a word from God on all such occasions. You must not disappoint them. Perhaps sometimes they are more prepared to listen than at other times. I am not suggesting that you should preach occasional sermons regularly—or even often. What is regular is not occasional; what is occasional is not regular. But when a significant occasion arises, the congregation expects to hear God’s Word to them about the stance they should take toward, or the part they should play in, the event.
How did Chrysostom preach a sermon that was so powerful in pathos and cogency on such short notice? He did what every other great preacher would do in times like that: he didn’t choose a preaching portion that was unfamiliar to him (see his opening remark about sermons on his text always being appropriate). He used appropriate to the occasion a passage on which he already had done the exegesis and had preached a sermon or two. He spent what time he had working on the adaptation, weaving into the material already at hand the facts of the occasion and how the Bible passage pertains to them. He also worked on form. The sermon shows that you can do the same.
Look for occasions. Don’t miss them. Surely this year there will be more than one occasion nationally, locally, or in your congregation (the death of an entire family in an automobile accident, perhaps) that will be so much on the minds of the congregation as they meet that they will hear nothing you say unless you speak to them about their relationship to the occasion (from the Bible, of course). That is when you must do occasional preaching. And that is how you do it. Will you be ready?