Speaking of the part played by chance, Oliver Goldsmith writes, in The Vicar of Wakefield: "Nor can I go on without a reflection on those accidental meetings, which though they happen every day, seldom excite our surprise but upon some extraordinary occasion. To what a fortuitous concurrence do we owe every pleasure and convenience of our lives!"
Upon reflection you see the truth of that. Look back! One day it was your hap to go into the field of Boaz, and your life since then has been a series of events growing out of that chance incident. You happened to visit a friend in a certain city, and there you have been ever since. One day you happened to open a book, and that book opened the world for you—spread before you the great page of life and its pulsing opportunities. You took a temporary position, and that has been your lifework.
You went one day into a church and heard a sermon, a prayer, a hymn, which altered the course of your life just as clearly as stones divide the waters and alter the course of a river. You happened one day to go into a drawing room or a public assembly, and you saw there a face. That moment, consciously or unconsciously, life was changed for you, enriched or impoverished, expanded or contracted; from that moment life was never the same, for it was the face of your wife, the face of your husband, the face of posterity, the face of your friend, the face of one who was to bring joy and peace or woe and shame into your life.
Oh, these chances! How they spin out the garment of our destiny, and we never know it! How these chance happenings have worked out our careers in life! Compared with them, how insignificant appear all our night dreaming and planning and all our day toiling. The best verdict on the past would seem to be this: "It was my hap!"
The lots were cast in the lap, and the seamen gathered round for the drawing of the lot. The dim light of the swinging ship's lantern revealed the anxiety stamped on every face. Each man's past, each man's sin, was making him say, "Lord, is it I?" Each searched his past. One thought of the merchant he had drowned in the harbor at Sidon. Another said, "That woman I robbed at the Piraeus." Another, "That girl I seduced in Egypt." Each one said to himself, "Is it I?" But when the lot came out, it had Jonah's number on it. The lot fell on Jonah. This was just chance, you say. Yes, it was chance; but chance overruled by the determination of God. "The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord." (Prov. 16:33.)
I have preached a good many sermons on a good many texts, but I can still feel the thrill of a text like this: "The word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time" (Jonah 3:1). The first time it came there was failure, disobedience, flight, disgrace, judgment, and disaster. But when he had been delivered out of the peril of the sea, "the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time." God, who spake once, spake to him again.
In his account of the Battle of Shiloh, General Grant tells of seeing hundreds of Union soldiers cowering under the banks of the river during the critical first days' fighting. Their regiments had been driven from the field, and these men were panic-stricken refugees. Grant tells how General Buell berated them and cursed them and vainly tried to get them back to join their commands on the firing line. Then he goes on to say, "Most of these men afterward proved themselves as gallant as any of those who saved the battle from which they had deserted." It takes more than one battle to make a campaign. Because a man has failed in one engagement does not mean that he will not be a hero in the next.