If By Chance

By James Cornwell

Reading from Acts, 1:15-26

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 16“Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus — 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
20“For it is written in the book of Psalms,
‘Let his homestead become desolate,
and let there be no one to live in it’;
‘Let another take his position of overseer.’
21So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.


When I was young, I used to think that if I wanted to hear God’s voice, I should drop my Bible open to a random verse and ask God to speak to me through it. It was naive, perhaps, but not without merit.

Here we see the apostles gather to name a successor to Judas, and upon reflecting on the merits of their brethren, they also recognize that authority comes from above. So to settle on a decision, they cast lots — the idea being that ceding control to chance can open the possibility for God to make his will known.

Physicist-turned-theologian John Polkinghorne once suggested that the quantum uncertainty in the unfolding of the universe leaves open a kind of “envelope of possibility” through which God can directly influence inherently unpredictable events. So perhaps this insight takes things a step further:

We do not need to contrive a “random” opening into nature through which God can speak; at its very core, nature is porous to God’s word.

Maybe it is true that God, in his eternal unchangeableness, willed that my younger self should gain a devotional insight from a verse I “randomly” landed on. But the truth is, God’s ability to speak through what we can’t control is much deeper, far more expansive — and goes farther even than our intentional cooperation.

For example, who placed you in this room, in this chair, at this time, surrounded by this life and these people? How is it that you happen to be meditating on this devotion, drawn from the tradition of this prayer book, and all from these Scriptures, which came to you this way and not that, through countless other people and colliding events, throughout millennia? God is speaking to you now.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.

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