Epiphany 7 – "You Shall Be Perfect" – Matthew 5:38-48 – 2/19/17

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No-Loophole1As you know it is our custom here to have the candidates for the Rite of Confirmation write and read an essay on the Christian faith to the congregation. Many years ago, I can still remember one candidate who, drawing on W.C. Fields famous line, began his essay by saying that he set out to study the 10 Commandments to see if he could find any ‘loopholes’ in them.

“Loopholes” are those little ‘exceptions’ or ‘inconsistencies’ that allow you to get around the law without ACTUALLY keeping it AND without ACTUALLY breaking it. “She used a loophole in the tax law to avoid paying the taxes she owed.” “His lawyer found a ‘loophole’ in the law that allowed him to get out of the contract.”’ “The legislature is working hard to close the ‘loopholes’ in the new legislation…”

This is now the 4th consecutive Sunday that we’ve been making our way through Matthew’s fifth chapter which began with the familiar Beatitudes – “blessed are you.” Jesus is speaking particularly to His disciples whom He will send with His blessing to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” These are the 12 whom He will commission to go to “all nations, baptizing and teaching everything I have commanded you.” (Mat.28:18).

They are to give eyewitness testimony of what they have heard Him speak and seen Him do, so that those who hear them will actually be hearing Jesus Himself. They are to be the “viva vox Jesu,” the ‘living voice of Jesus.’

Which means that they need to get it right. Six times in this “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old… but I say to you…” Each of the six examples pertains directly to the 10 Commandments. He’s not OVERRIDING the 10 Commandments. He’s sweeping away all of the false teaching and ‘loopholes’ that have confused them.

Somewhere between the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai and the present day, lots of ‘loopholes’ had been discovered in the 10 Commandments. Or so it was said. And where no loopholes in the law could be found, special exemptions and exceptions were created. Clever lawyers are nothing new. Continue reading

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Epiphany 5 – "You Are Salt and Light" – Matthew 5:13-20 – 2/5/17


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images“You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” These are the words that immediately follow the words we heard last Sunday – the Beatitudes. “He opened His mouth and taught them…” His teaching was not ‘teaching’ as in ‘instruction for how to be a disciple of his.’ “If you do this, then you will be my disciple and receive all the blessings that come with discipleship.” That’s the teaching of every other religion in the world. “If you do this you will be blessed.” First works, then if you’ve maintained at least a C+ average – blessing.

But what Jesus teaches, in perfect harmony with whole bible because, after all, it’s all by Him and about Him, is unique. “Blessed are you…” and here are the works that follow. First blessing and grace and forgiveness and the Holy Spirit and a whole new life in Christ, then go be the person God has re-created in His image to be.

So, there on the mountain, He put His blessing on them nine times. “Blessed are you…” By the power of His strong word alone, He brings them into the Kingdom of heaven where He rules as King of kings and Lord of lords and the good shepherd of His sheep.

And then, no sooner does He bring them into His kingdom and put His blessing on them, but He sends them right back out into the world again. “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.”

He had to put His blessing on them before they could be a blessing; just like He did with Adam and Eve in the beginning. “And God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen.1:28) First He puts His blessing on them and then He sends them into the world. Continue reading

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Epiphany 4 – "Blessed Are You…" – Matthew 5:1-12 – 1/29/17

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As most of you know, it is entirely possible to take a virtual tour of the great vineyards of France and California without ever leaving your home. Just as it’s entirely possible to play golf at Pebble Beach and Torry Pines without ever actually stepping foot on either course. And as most of you well know, it is possible to have a thousand ‘friends’ without ever actually seeing or speaking them. I recently took a tour of the home of an old high school friend who lives in South Carolina using Google Maps.

And yet as accessible and convenient as this virtual reality is, it’s not really real. You may have taken the tour but you never actually tasted the wine or swung a club or visited an old friend.

A lot of people do religion as virtual reality. They’ve seen it and maybe even been there, but they’ve never actually experienced the relief of hearing “I forgive you all of your sins” spoken to them; or the peace of knowing that they are loved by their Creator; or the satisfaction and joy of being a part of the body of Christ and the communion of saints. Continue reading

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Epiphany 3 – "Light For Zebulun and Napthtali" – Matthew 4:12-25 – 1/22/17

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rays-of-light-shining-throug-dark-cIf you know the story of Jacob, you know that he had a ‘complicated’ family life to say the least. To make a long story short, Jacob had 12 sons and who knows how many daughters. Each son had a family of his own and over time, these 12 families become the “12 tribes of Jacob,” or to use the name that Jacob was given, “the 12 tribes of Israel.”

When Israel crosses the Jordan River into the Promised Land, each ‘family’ draws a number out of a hat that determines which territory will be theirs.

The family of Zebulun drew number 3, which was a small parcel of land just off of the Sea of Galilee. (Joshua 19:10-16)

The family of Naphtali drew number 6, which was a large parcel of land that occupied the entire western side of the Sea of Galilee and marked the northern border of Israel. Naphtali consisted of 12 cities, one of which was called ‘Capernaum.’ (Joshua 19:32-39).

There comes a time in Israel’s history when the King of Israel was so weak and corrupt that foreign nations begin to take advantage of her. The Assyrians invade from the north and take some of the territory and deport the Israelites and raise the Assyrian flag. And of course, that territory was the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. You can read all about it in 2 Kings 15.

It might help to think of it like this. A foreign nation invades the U.S. by its northern border and conquers the states of Maine and New Hampshire and raises a foreign flag and forces everyone to submit to its rule. It’s a DARK and GLOOMY time to say the least. Continue reading

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Epiphany 2 – "Behold The Lamb Of God" – John 1:29-42 – 1/15/17

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The long, boney forefinger of John the Baptist points to the one whom he had just baptized saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

I can still remember one of my favorite profs in Seminary saying, ‘men, you can’t preach a great sermon every Sunday.’ Something that I know I have proved to be quite true over the years. But this morning, we’re hearing a great sermon preached to us by John the Baptist. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Every sermon that is what a sermon is supposed to be does exactly what John does here – points us to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

There are lots of voices preaching lots of sermon, pointing their boney fingers at this or that or the other thing that promises to take away something we want taken away.
• “Behold, the perfect diet THAT TAKES AWAY that weight you gained over the holidays.”
• “Behold, the miraculous skin cream THAT TAKES AWAY those wrinkles and age spots.”
• “Behold, the credit card THAT TAKES AWAY every reason for not having everything you want right now.”

And it gets far more serious and dangerous than that. The boney finger of death points to the law of the land:
• “Behold, the law that gives you the right to TAKE AWAY the fetus in the womb if it’s unhealthy or inconvenient or the wrong gender or for no reason at all.”
• “Behold, the law that says it’s okay to TAKE AWAY your own life if you decide it’s not worth living.”

But this morning we John points his finger at Jesus Christ saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And on this ‘SANCTITY OF LIFE SUNDAY,’ this is just the sermon we need to hear.

This is the season of Epiphany which is all about establishing the true identity of the child, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He was not born with a halo around his head which would have made Him more conspicuous and easier to identify. As the prophet Isaiah says, “…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Is. 53:2) The point is, the only way that you will ever recognize this One for who His truly is, is if you listen to the preaching.
Continue reading

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Epiphany 1 – The Voice of the Lord – Psalm 29

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I’d like to begin this morning by asking you to take out your worship bulletin and turn to page 8. The Psalm appointed for today – ‘The Baptism of our Lord,’ is the 29th Psalm and I’d like to have us hear it again by singing it again. (Congregation sings Psalm 29)

I. Psalm 29:1-2 – Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength

voice-of-the-lordNow with your worship bulletin still open, I want you to notice how the Psalm is organized. Verses 1 and 2 call us to “ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name.” To ‘ascribe’ is to ‘recognize’ or ‘acknowledge’ that “glory and strength” belong to the Lord.

Special emphasis is placed on the Lord’s ‘glory.’ The word “glory” in the Hebrew is ‘chavod’. And it literally means ‘weight.’ The Lord is ‘heavy.’ He is not to be taken ‘lightly.’

His ‘glory’ is ascribed to His ‘name.’ This is why we dare not take the ‘name of God’ ‘lightly.’ You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. His name is ‘glorious,’ it’s ‘heavy.’ We are to ascribe to it the ‘weight’ it is due.

The call to ‘ascribe to the Lord glory and strength’ goes out to the “heavenly beings.” And the ‘heavenly beings’ do just that. They ‘worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.’

Just to be sure we hear that right let’s rephrase it like this, “They worship the Lord, splendored in holiness,’ or ‘clothed in holiness.’ It’s a holiness that they ‘ascribe to the Lord,’ it belongs to Him, He is the source and the author of the ‘holiness’ that they are splendored in. The ‘heavenly beings’ are ‘worshipping’ the Lord of glory clothed in the glory that belongs to Him.

II. Psalm 29:3-9 – “The voice of the Lord…”

And now we come to verses 3-9 where we have this incredible repetition of the phrase, “the voice of the Lord…” In the Hebrew it’s the “qol yahweh”. The word “qol” tells you something about its meaning by the SOUND of the word. It’s “QOL” with a hard ‘qaph’ that is meant to sound like ‘thunder.’

Counting them, we see that this phrase, “The voice of the Lord…” is repeated in these 7 times in 7 verses. 7 is the number for completeness, as in the 7 days of creation.

“The voice of the Lord is over the waters, the God of glory thunders…” “The Lord, speaks His voice over many waters – as He did in the beginning when the whole world was a watery deep – “Let there be light.” “And there was light.”

“The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.” And now listen to the effect that this ‘powerful,’ ‘majestic’ voice of the Lord has on those who hear it.

“The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.” The cedars of Lebanon were known for being the tallest, most majestic trees you could find. They’re what Solomon ordered for construction of the Temple. But the voice of the Lord snaps them like twigs. Continue reading

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Circumcision and Name of Jesus – Luke 2:21- 1/1/17

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keep-simple-quote-written-white-chalk-blackboard-48583486Sometimes we Christians can make religion a lot more complicated than it really is. Religion is a simple thing really. God has given us laws to obey and rules to follow and if you obey them and follow them you live, and if you don’t you die. All religions have got their laws and rules and all religions basically say the same thing – obey and you live, disobey and you die.

And Christianity is no exception to this rule. In the beginning it was “you may eat of any tree of the garden but you shall not eat of the tree in the midst of the garden for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Keep the law and you live. Break the law and you die. It’s really that simple.

It got a little more complicated when God expanded the law to be obeyed by 10fold. But the principle remains the same. Keep it and you live. Break it and you die.

But that is way too simple for us. It’s much too cut and dry. Far too black and white. There’s no room in the Law for exceptions or special considerations. Circumstances and conditions have to be factored in somehow.

For example, “honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Sounds simple enough until the kids start playing sports or the job has its demands or the sun is shining or the fish are biting or the sun isn’t shining. It’s not so simple.

Or take the 6th Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” How do you define, ‘adultery’? Is it adultery if you really love the other person, or if you plan to get married, or if it wasn’t serious or if you just watched it on your TV or computer? It’s really quite complicated.

And then there’s the ‘partial completion’ clause that we’ve insisted on adding to the Commandments. How much of the Law must we keep to have kept it enough? 100% seems entirely unreasonable. I recently heard someone say that they go to church a lot more than most of the people their age do, as if that made a sporadic attendance acceptable. It’s all relative and relativity is complicated.

And then there’s the ‘sincerity’ factor that has to be considered. Does it really count if it wasn’t sincere? And what if we failed but really, really tried? Shouldn’t that count for more than someone who never even tried? “He never went to church but he had a strong faith in God.” What are you supposed to do with that?

We Christians have made a simple thing like “obey the law and live” such a complicated thing. And I suspect that the reason we have done so is that we all somehow know deep, down inside, that we cannot actually keep the Law of God as God actually commanded it and intended it to be kept.

So the best we can do is to complicate the daylights out of it so that no one can be too sure who is keeping it and who is not, and therefore who is being saved and who is not. And we’re betting our life on the hope that God is as confused about the whole thing as we are so that in the end, everyone is saved.

But of course, this is always a bad bet to make. Because God is not confused. He knows His Law and how to interpret it because it’s His Law. He knows the way that He has directed men and women to live and that it is a ‘hard way’ and that leads through a ‘narrow door.’ (Mat.7:13-14) And He knows that no man or woman has ever obeyed His Law or lived His ‘way’ according to His demand, which is perfect. “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.”

Because if there were a man or a woman who had kept His Law and walked His way, according to His perfect demands, He would not have had to send His Son into the world as He did. Jesus Christ has come into this world to keep the Law of God. It’s really as simple as that.

And that is why He is circumcised on the eighth day. Circumcision goes all the way back to Abraham to whom God gave the command that he and his entire household must be circumcised. Circumcision was the indelible mark that identified the circumcised as an heir of the covenant that God made with Abraham.

It’s a mark that identifies the one so marked, NOT that God may identify him as ‘heir of the promise,’ but that the one so marked may be sure that he is an ‘heir of the promise’ God made to Abraham.

Luther anticipates the natural reaction that we all have to God’s commandment that Abraham and all of his children and servants and all who would be included in the covenant be circumcised saying, “Here God established a covenant with a requirement so silly that it’s hard to imagine anything more ridiculous! What could be more laughable than that God – the eternal wisdom! – would order an eight-day-old child and the ninety-nine year old Abraham to be circumcised – together with all others who might wish to adopt the Jewish faith?…”

Luther puts himself in Abraham’s place. “What a silly thing that we oldsters would be circumcised! God surely doesn’t mean that literally; there must be some other explanation – some spiritual meaning to this.” “So Abraham also, could have said after receiving the circumcision command, ‘dear Lord, how can this contribute to my salvation if on the eighth day after birth a little bit of skin is cut away from the body?… That’s how reason speaks and thinks when it wants to be really brilliant!”…“That’s how all of God’s commandments fare with us: reason butts its head against them and takes offense…”

So it is that Joseph and Mary bring their son to be circumcised when He is eight days old. No exceptions or exemptions for this baby who is the Christ, the Son of God. It’s the LAW of God. It’s that simple. Jesus Christ has come into this world to keep the Law – perfectly, completely, according to all of the perfect and righteous demands of God.

This is what the Christian religion is all about. We try to complicate this by saying that the Christian religion is all about ‘love’ – ‘love of God’ and ‘love of neighbor,’ but what does Jesus say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

There is One who has kept the Law and walked the Way of God, perfectly. He doesn’t argue with it or interpret it or spiritualize it. He keeps it – willingly, gladly, fully and firmly believing that the Law of God is GOOD because God is GOOD and God is LOVE and a good and loving God would never tell you to do anything that wasn’t GOOD for you.

And with this One, God is ‘well pleased.’ He is what we all should be but are not. And in fact, this is exactly why the Father sent His Son into the world – so that He would be what we should be but are not; so that He may keep the Law perfectly, FOR US and IN OUR PLACE and ON OUR BEHALF.

“When the time had fully come, God sent His son, born of a woman, born under the LAW to redeem those who were under the LAW…” (Galatians 4:4). What we should be but aren’t, what we should do but don’t, HE IS and HE DOES. And the Father counts it all to you as if it was YOU and as if you were just like HIM.

The Law of God demands that the Law of God be kept – perfectly. And Jesus did it. Especially that Law that condemns to death the one who ‘falls short of the Law of God.’ The cutting of His flesh at eight days old was just a preview of the cutting of His flesh at 33 years old. Jesus keeps even this Law of God – “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die…”

This is what makes the Christian religion different than all other religions. All religions are about the keeping of the Law of God for life and salvation. But only the Christian religion believes and teaches that God Himself has kept HIS LAW perfectly, for us – especially that Law that condemns the law breaker to death.

Jesus Christ was circumcised, bearing that mark on His flesh of the promise made to Abraham. But now Christ bears new marks in His flesh, the marks of nails in His hands and feet and the mark of the spear on His side. These are the marks of the promise that God made to Abraham, perfectly fulfilled in the God of Abraham, and your God too.

These are the marks that have been placed on you in your baptism. “Receive the mark of the cross, both upon your forehead and upon your heart that MARK YOU as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.” The ‘mark’ of the cross is now the mark that identifies the one so marked as an heir of the promise – the promise made to Abraham, now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
“And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

The mark that you received in your baptism has not been placed on you so that God may be able to identify you as His own child, but so that you may be certain that you are a child of God and an heir, ACCORDING TO GOD’S PROMISE, not according to your obedience.

Life and salvation IS all about the keeping the Law of God perfectly. That is what we cannot do BUT that is what Jesus Christ has done for us. So now, it is by faith in the One who has kept the Law of God on our behalf that we have life and salvation, even while we continue to fall short and transgress the Law of God. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

Believing that Jesus Christ has kept the Law perfectly for us does not mean that we are free to live as though His Law doesn’t matter.

No, rather, His circumcision and crucifixion and resurrection has set us free DENYING OUR GUILT to CONFESSING that that we have not kept His Law as He would have us keep it, either because we didn’t want to or because we thought it was foolish or because we forgot that we were marked with the sign of the cross, or all of the above.

Jesus has set us free from every desire to complicate this beautiful religion by inventing ways to confuse God’s Law that we might be judged more favorably by it. We have already been judged in the cross of Jesus and raised to life with Him on the 3rd day.

Already, at just eight days old, Jesus Christ set us free from the curse of the Law, so that we may now strive to live according to it because it honors God and is good for us.

It’s as simple as that.

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Christmas Morning – John 1:1-18 – "The Cosmic Christmas" – 12/25/16

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The Christmas story that we are most familiar with is the one that we heard last night about a woman named Mary and a man named Joseph and shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night and the sudden appearance of a multitude of angels with their GOOD NEWS to announce. And of course, we almost forgot, the baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger who is Christ the Lord.

We usually throw in a donkey or two, and add our own little bit of adventure that every hotel in Bethlehem was sold out and poor Mary had to give birth in a cold, dark barn because the all the people in Bethlehem were very selfish and rude people. (Even though none of that is in the text and probably didn’t happen like that at all).

That’s the Christmas story that we’re most familiar with and the one that we could each recite to someone if they were from another planet and wanted know us what all the fuss is about.

But this morning, we hear the very same Christmas story, told very, very differently than the one we heard last night. No Mary and Joseph, no angels or shepherds, no little town of Bethlehem, no swaddling clothes or manger.

This morning, it’s Christmas with St. John who always sees things differently than the others. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him and without him was not anything made that has been made… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

When was the last time you sat your children or grandchildren on your knee, cracked open a few chestnuts to roast on the open fire, and told them about Christmas like that? Continue reading

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Christmas Eve – "The Angel's Song" – Luke 2:14 – 12/24/16

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There’s an old legend, (and really, it’s nothing more than that,) that many years after that first Christmas night, some of the older shepherds were trying to remember how that song went that they heard the angels sing on that first Christmas night. As they sat around the fire, on the hillside under the stars keeping watch over their flocks by night, they tried and tried to recall the song but to no avail. They’re pondering was interrupted by the sounds of a lamb, bleating in the distance that had gone astray. Which of them would leave the warmth of the fire to go rescue the lost sheep.

Finally, a teenager got up from the fire and went. On finding the lost lamb, he lifted it up on his shoulders and brought it back to the fold. As he returned, he was singing a song that he had learned from his father who said that he had heard it one night, in those fields just outside of Bethlehem. It was the tune to the song that the angels had sung on that first Christmas night.

(Sung from balcony: LSB #368 – Refrain)

This evening, we too have left the comfort of our homes to hear that song that the shepherds heard on that first Christmas night. We want to participate in the wonder and the mystery and the marvel of that night. But for us, this is far more than a night of holiday nostalgia. Most of all, we have come here to hear the same good news of life and salvation that those shepherds heard. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, A SAVIOR, who is Christ the Lord.” Continue reading

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Advent 4 – "You Shall Call His Name, Jesus" – Matthew 1:18-25 – 12/18/16

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godwithusWay back in the beginning when there were just two people in the whole world… and really, how much damage can just two people do? But they did. “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food and to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate…” She knew better because Adam had told her not to eat of the fruit from this ONE tree for on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. She recited the LAW of GOD to the serpent like we recite the 10 Commandments and the Nicene Creed.

But she listened to that cunning serpent and his word got into her through her ears and an unholy thing was conceived in her and Eve gave birth to SIN and DEATH and every vice none to mankind that comes in-between those two.

But our attention this morning is not on THE WOMAN. It’s on THE MAN. Where was Adam while this was going on? He was right next to her. “…and she also gave some to her husband WHO WAS WITH HER, and he ate.” (Gen.3:6) He did NOTHING. He just stood there and watched as the serpent had his way with his wife. What a coward. What a wimp. He should have defended his wife. He should have protected her. He should have thrown himself between her and the serpent and said, “OVER MY DEAD BODY.”

But he did NOTHING and his NOTHING cost the whole human race its home in paradise.

And now this morning, we hear that the woman is pregnant once again – and once again by way of her ears – but not with the ‘UNHOLY seed of the serpent,’ but with the HOLY SEED of the Holy Spirit. “And therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.” (Lk. 1:35)

But our attention is not directed so much to the WOMAN as it is to the MAN – her husband. THIS woman will be everything that THAT woman should have been but wasn’t. But what about THIS man? Will he be the HUSBAND that man failed to be? Continue reading

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