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There is Only One Priest (Sermon October 25, 2015)

Hebrews 7:23–28 (NRSV) christ-the-high-priest-icon

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

 

There are very few things in life that are more stressful to people involved in any large organization than the change of leadership. In a corporation when there is a change of the CEO, most employees do not really notice, but if you are higher up within the company these changes are more stressful. I have been a part of two companies while there was a change in the Chief Executive. By in large it did not affect the day to day operations but there were subtle changes that emerged from the change of leadership. These subtle changes, the changes that occurred do to different leadership styles and vision of the future of the company greatly affected the overall perception of the company. When leadership changes there is a period of time where the future is unknown. This is the stressful part of change, this unknown aspect. Will they cut jobs? Will they institute changes that will affect my position? Will they improve the company or run it into the ground? It does not matter if the change in leadership is for a business, a nation, a school, or a church when there are changes at the top of the organization those vested in that organization wonder.

Most of us have worked under some sort of leader or manager at some point in our lives. When these changes have occurred the job we are required to do has not changed but there are subtleties that we recognize. They focus on different aspect of the job and at times it is an aspect that we were never concerned with before. When the focus changes, we either adjust or seek other options. But what happens when the change in leadership affects something beyond our personal income? What do we do when the change of leadership is at the top of the organization whose purpose and priority is connecting individuals to the divine? The writer of Hebrews is directing our attention to this very serious aspect of life.

Last week we began the discussion of Priests and how there really are not any contemporary officers that reflect this office. But there are offices within various religious organizations that do come close. The reason behind this is because the religious structure of the contemporary era does not reflect the various aspects of religion in the ancient days. The various priest of Israel served as conduits between God and mankind. The people would come to the priest bringing the various offerings and the priest would take those offerings, perform the various rites, and then the priest would offer the person the assurance that God would consider their petitions. But there was only one priest among the many priest that could go directly before the mercy seat of God. This one priest would carry the offering of the entire nation, would answer for the entire nation, and would carry the response of God to the people.

The lower priests would be in service for around twenty-five years, beginning their service at the age of twenty-five and then retiring at the age of fifty. But the high priest would serve beyond the age of fifty till he died. The office of the high priest was a hereditary office, but there were some restrictions. The heir to this office had to be pious, intelligent, kosher, wealthy, and for lack of better words good looking. They were to be the representatives of the people to God and God to the people so they had to be perfect. The problem is they were human and perfection is hard to come by, and at times the heir to this office did not quite fit the bill. It was the job of the Sanhedrin or the seventy-one most respected priest, to determine if the heir was acceptable and if they were not choose the next in line. And after Israel demanded a king the office of the High priest became a political office where the king as well as the Sanhedrin would have to approve the next successor.

The political aspect of the high priesthood became even more charged as time went on to the point that after the people of Israel returned from exile the political leaders would often choose the priest and the Sanhedrin would place them in office. The only thing that remained was that they had to be kosher, or follow the laws of God ceremonially.

This office, regardless of who filled the position, remained the only representative the people had before God, and was the representative of God to the people. As you can imagine this single person held great power, if they were corrupt the entire nation was corrupt and if they were pious the entire nation followed as well, because they alone stood before God. Yet this office was constantly vacated because people die. Every generation the person sitting in the office would change at least once, and as politics gained greater control over the religious aspects of life these changes could happen even more often.

This change in leadership is what the writer of Hebrews wants to direct our attention to. With each change the people could draw closer to God or fall further away. At times the office would be so corrupt that God would call a prophet from the midst of the people to rise up and speak out against the religious establishment to redirect the attention to what was really important. Which would change things for a while but the cycle would continue.

But Jesus the priest in the order of Melchizedek was different. He holds the office permanently, forever, even to the end of ages. Let that sink in for a moment. Just sit for a moment and consider why it is important for the writer of Hebrews to write the words, “but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”

Our priest does not change. What does that actually mean to our spiritual lives?

Recently our yearly meeting had a significant leadership change, the highest position in our organization was vacated by one and we filled it with another. This could have great significance in the direction of the organization, but ultimately nothing has changed. There is only one priest and that priest has not changed. There is only one that stands between God the Father and us, Jesus.

This priest is holy, blameless, undefiled, separated and exulted. He is perfect in every way. He is the greatest representative of God to mankind because he came down from the throne of heaven to live among us. He is also the greatest representative of man to God because he was born and lived a full human life. He is God and Man able to speak for both at the same time.

But what does that mean to our spiritual lives?

Our priest does not change, even though our leaders do. This means that we should focus our attention on Jesus, study him and his ways. We should consider his teachings and listen to his words. If he is our priest we should appeal to him, and if he is our teacher we should follow his ways.

So often times we are distracted from this. We begin to look at the leaders of a church, the leaders of a denomination, or leaders of a nation even, and we want to rely on them to be the conduit for us. But we as leaders are not the priests. I cannot as a pastor take on the responsibility of your soul because I am not given that authority. I cannot through the mysteries of worship guarantee your salvation, because I do not have that authority. I am not the priest. The Superintendent of the Yearly Meeting is not the priest. The bishop of Canterbury, Rome, the metropolitan of Moscow, or the chairman of the Baptist convention are not the priest. If we are putting our faith in these people, expecting these men and women to provide for us the means of salvation we have misplaced our faith.

All I can do is encourage you to look to Christ. All I can do is walk with you as you discover more of Christ. All I can do is pray with you as you petition Christ. All I can do is pray that you will know Christ more fully and that you will allow the Spirit of God to flow through you. Here is the kicker though, that is all you can do as well.

We can strive to make our worship services more entertaining, but if we do not point people to the true priest we have done nothing. We can make doctrinal changes, appoint people to positions and educate people in the ways of our church, but if we do not point them to the true priest, Jesus, we are just an empty organization. We could sing songs of praise, have the greatest musicians in the world, but if they do not point us to Christ we are nothing.

All we do should be focused on Jesus because He is our salvation, He is our representative, He is our priest, and our God. Now how does that affect our spiritual lives?

Paul encourages us to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. James encourages us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger because we are members of one another. John tells us that we know love by this that He laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. All of these teaching have one thing in common, they are reflections of the life and ministry of Jesus.

But how does that affect your spiritual life? Who are we putting our faith in? What are we putting out faith in? Who are we following? And who is following?

Jesus was born of Mary, live in the community, worked with Joseph, and became a man. He made it his custom to worship, He withdrew often to isolated places to pray, and he loved the people around him. He taught, fed, healed, and encouraged people to embrace a better life. He became human. And through his sacrifice we can become who we were meant to be.

We have one priest. Only one priest. Our priest is man and God perfectly and completely joined together for eternity, and our priest is calling each of us to follow him. And as we follow him we are to take on his life and lifestyle so that others might see him though us. Worship, Prayer and service; lives fully focused on him and his ways. We have only one priest.

As we enter this time of holy expectancy and communion with God as Friends consider more fully what Jesus our priest means.

 

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Forgive Them (Sermon October 18, 2015)

Hebrews 5:1–10 (NRSV)

Einar Jónsson, 1874-1954 Grimsstayaholt Reyjavik, Iceland

Einar Jónsson, 1874-1954
Grimsstayaholt
Reyjavik, Iceland

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

“You are my Son,

today I have begotten you”;

6     as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever,

according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

The book of Hebrews brings up many theological concepts that are unique to this one book. It dives deeper into the concepts of angels than any other book of scripture, and it also speaks fully about the office of priest. I bring up this uniqueness because most of the New Testament is silent about priest. Even the gospels speak very little about them, but when the writers do mention the priests they hold a very important role. For instance when Jesus healed those with leprosy they were told to present themselves to the priests, and it was the high priest that was the final say in the verdict against Jesus before they presented him to governor.

Clearly the priest has an important role. But I do not think we fully understand the role of the priest in our contemporary era. It is not surprising that we have ignorance over the office of the priest because for the most part we do not have an equivalent to this role. Most would say that a pastor is an equivalent but if we were to look deeper into the actual role of the various offices we would see that there is a difference.

When we look back to the very beginning of the nation of Israel we begin to see the emergence of the office of the priest after the children of Abraham are lead out of Egypt. Prior to this time there was not an office of priest because God spoke to and through the patriarchs, and for the most part during the years of captivity we do not know how the people worshiped. This time of exodus out of captivity is key to understanding the role of the priest and the role of the people. Let’s look at this story for a moment.

Jacob or Israel had twelve sons and one of them was the favored one, this favorite son made the others jealous and they plotted against him and eventually sold him into slavery and told their father that he was killed by wild beasts. Joseph, the favored son, was sold to Ishmaelites, who then sold him to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph worked hard and the household was blessed through Joseph, but then plots were again set up against Joseph and he was thrown into prison. Even in prison Joseph was a blessing to those around him. Eventually word made it to Pharaoh that Joseph was extremely wise, and the leader of the Egyptian empire requested his services. While this was going on the rest of Joseph’s family was struggling because the land of Canaan was experiencing an extreme famine, eventually they migrated to Egypt to try to obtain food. While in Egypt God brought the family back together and they moved to Egypt and settled there. This story is one that shows us the grace of God even though the trials, at times the hardest part of our life is putting us into a position to become the greatest blessing sometime in the future. I could preach more of that but that is not for today.

After a time the Egyptians were tired of the aliens that had moved into their land and seemed they failed to remember the history that brought these people into their nation and they became very jealous of them and began to persecute them and eventually enslaved them. For over four hundred years the children of Israel were enslaved, held in bondage, unable to live the life in the freedom they were promised by God though their Fathers. This is where Moses and Aaron come in and the beginning of the priesthood of Israel. Moses was sent by God to lead the people back to freedom, but Pharaoh was not willing to release them. This lead to sever plagues in the land. Water was made undrinkable, crops were ruined, flocks died, and eventually the first born of every family who was not covered by the blood of a lamb was killed by the spirit of God. After the plagues pharaoh allowed the people to leave his land, and the nation of Israel was formed.

But it was from the bondage, the plagues, and redemption that define the office of the priest. Everything within the religious life of Israel revolves around these events, because prior to this there was not a priest. Prior to this there was no need for a priest because God spoke directly to the fathers. But Israel was brought to bondage by their jealous and greed, and sin held them in captivity. It was God that brought them out and God who bought them. Yes I said bought them, because that is what happened. The price of Israel’s freedom was the first born of every living creature. Every creature of Egypt and every creature of Israel belonged to God. That was the price of redemption. What does this have to do with the office of the priest? When the blood of the lamb was place over the doors of the people of Israel it allowed the people to live, but it did not remove the price.

When Israel emerged out of bondage and journeyed to the land of promise, God demanded the first born of every creature including their children. This was a steep price to pay but God in His grace provided a way, to offset the demand of the first born he set aside one tribe out of the twelve to be his. All the other tribes would have redemption though this one a constant reminder of the steep price they had to pay for their redemption. The law required that every first born male child be brought to God and for the family to be able to take that child home they would have to bring a sacrifice to purchase the child back from God, but the exchange was that another child would take the place of the one redeemed. That child would come from one tribe the tribe of Levi, the tribe from which Moses and Aaron came. This tribe was God’s tribe, the tribe set aside to remind the nation of the great price required to live free.

One tribe, took on the wages of sin of a nation. And though this one tribe since they bore the sins of the nation they became the only ones that could offer to the people the grace of God. From that moment on God spoke predominately to the people through this one tribe and the people spoke to God through them. It was an entire cultural identity revolving around this recognition that our sinfulness carries a great price. For my children to live free, to inherit the blessing of God someone else must take their place. The tribe of Levi was taken care of but they were the one tribe that remained slaves even in the land of promise. They did not have an inheritance, they were bound, their only hope was in the people of Israel staying true to God and when the people turned from God they would see this one tribe suffer because of it.

Have we ever looked at the tribe of Levi, and the office of the priesthood in this light? This one tribe represented the entire nation. The good and the bad was seen through this one tribe. This one tribe represented the entire nation before God and God to the entire nation. But only one of this tribe could actually make direct appeals to God and that was the High Priest. This one high priest would wear the special garments representing all of Israel into the most holy area of the temple. This one priest carried it all. Imagine if you will that position. Imagine if you would have to stand before the judge speaking on behalf of everyone in our nation, having to provide an answer for every grievance that occurred, and knowing that those grievances could negate the very covenant that God made. How would you approach? How would you enter this most holy place? How would you stand before God knowing that the sins of your neighbor could cost not only them but you your life?

There is a reason that this most holy place is called the mercy seat, because that is the only thing that we could possibly ask for standing there before pure holiness. None of us can stand in confidence representing an entire nation. Because we are fully aware of our own short comings. There is not a single person holy enough to stand because all of us has sinned. But we do not stand in that place, because Jesus stands there for us.

I will briefly speak on Melchizedek. Melchizedek was the king of Salem and a priest of the most high God during the days of Abraham. I mention this only because he was outside the promise, he was not part of Abraham’s company, so by definition he was a gentile. And yet he was a representative of God. Jesus is said to be a priest in the order of Melchizedek and not of Aaron. Aaron was Israel’s priest, Melchizedek was not. Melchizedek is an image of the redemption of all people through Christ. The writer of Hebrews includes this because Jesus was not a priest according to Jewish Law. He was not a Levite, but of the tribe of Judah, and yet he became the voice of the people and the voice of God.

Jesus stands as our priest. There is no other priest required. Jesus came and lived among humankind, offering prayers, worship, and service to others. He stood before the accusers and took on the wages of sin. He hung on a cross and cried out to God the Father, “Forgive them, for the do not know what they are doing.” That statement still rings in the halls of the heavenly temple. Forgive them.

Jesus stood in our place. He took on our punishment. He became our advocate. And what He said is forgive them. The price to redeem those in bondage is life. It was the lives of the one tribe for the lives of the other eleven. It was potentially the life of the one priest for the life of the others. But there is still only one statement that can be made, “Forgive them!”

Can you say those words? Can you say those words knowing that those around you could care less? Can you say those words even when you feel those that have sin against you have no desire or even knowledge that an offense has occurred? Forgive them! Those are the words that a priest must say. And that is why I say that there is not an office in the contemporary era that really represents the office of the priest. Because it is impossible to say those words without the strength of Christ. Forgive them!

Forgive them, those are the words that Jesus spoke and the words that he is calling each of us to speak. The writer of Hebrews says that through Jesus’ priestly office he has become the source of eternal salvation for those that obey him. Forgive them, is the command that Jesus gave to Peter when peter asked about the sins of a brother. Forgive them. This is forgiveness is the beginning of our journey with Christ and through this forgiveness we have hope, and we become the hope for the nations. As we enter this time of holy expectancy and communion with God in sacred silence, I ask again, “Can you say those words: Forgive them?”

Angelic Battles (Sermon October 4, 2015)

Hebrews 1:1–4 (NRSV)

Cathedral of Brasilia Brasilia, Brazil

Cathedral of Brasilia
Brasilia, Brazil

God Has Spoken by His Son

(Cp Jn 1:1–4)

1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Hebrews 2:5–12 (NRSV)

Exaltation through Abasement

(Cp Ps 8:1–9)

Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,

or mortals, that you care for them?

7     You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;

you have crowned them with glory and honor,

8        subjecting all things under their feet.”

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,

in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

There are many things that peak my interest. When new technologies come out I am interested in what has improved and what has stayed the same. I will spend time reading about the newest things just because what humans are capable of creating fascinates me. But the emerging technologies can eventually get a bit dry for me. I many get excited about these things when I am upgrading my phone, or when someone I know begins to consider a change. My brother and James could probably quote you the technical specifications of pretty much every device that is currently on the market and about to be released.

The other thing that really excites me is the latest news in genetic studies. I get a weekly newsletter that speaks about the various studies that are being published. Exciting things like the newest emerging vaccines and how they were able to zero in on the one aspect of a virus that would encourage immune response without causing illnesses. To let you know just how interesting this really is medical science is on the verge of finding a vaccine for HIV. The other aspect of genetics that excites me is in the form of agricultural sciences.  Many get worried about the presence of genetically modified organisms in our food supply, but without many of these modifications many of the foods we consider staples for our diets would have become so expensive that we would not be able to eat them. Because like a vaccine for humans many of the genetic modifications in crops are modifications that prevent disease, diseases that could potentially cause worldwide famine.

There is one things that I find very fascinating, something that is not the associated with the latest emerging technologies, but instead is related to the ancient past. Ancient cultures, the religions and customs of people from ancient times. I can find myself reading article after article speaking on archeological discoveries. I am fascinated by the various theories people promote about various customs and how they emerged. But one thing that has always had me puzzled is how vastly different the majority of the ancient religions were from the religion promoted by the children of Abraham. I have several possible theories that I like to toy with late at night when I am unable to sleep, but as I consider the letter to the Hebrews something jumped out at me that excites me more than even a potential cure to HIV.

The letter to the Hebrews is one of those letters that we cannot confidently say was written by anyone in particular. Tradition would say that this letter was written by Paul, which many widely accept. But some believe that it could have been written by one of the lesser known apostles. There is something about the author that every scholar recognizes, whoever wrote this letter had a very good grasp of the interworking of the temple. Almost as if they had a firsthand knowledge of the sacrificial systems within the Jewish temple. By first hand I mean that it was likely written by someone that had a priestly background, someone that preformed the rites not just participated in them. Because of this many scholars have looked into the backgrounds of some of the known apostles of Jesus looking for someone that had both a strong grasp of the Greek language as well as a linage that would have placed them in the service of the temple. Of late the likely candidates other than Paul is Barnabas because it is widely believed that Barnabas was a Levite which would have placed him within the hereditary line of priests. This excites me because I have always thought that the most likely alternative to Paul as the author of this letter would have been James.

Why does this matter to us? It may not mean anything to us right at this moment, but Hebrews touches on some very deep aspects of Jewish theology and ancient understandings of how God spoke to the people. The letter begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” This is what began the excitement in my spirit. How did God speak in the ancient times? In most theological traditions of Christianity God did not indwell humanity during the periods of history before Jesus. God would send messengers or he would grant dreams or visions that would inspire people to speak, sometimes He would speak directly to them.  I want us to focus on the messengers for a moment, because these are the spiritual beings that we see visiting the heroes of faith throughout the pages of the Old Testament. There are a couple of messengers we even know by name, Gabriel and Michael. Both of these spiritual beings are considered Archangels, or angels of the highest degree ones that report directly to God. Michael is considered the commander of the heavenly armies that protect the nation of Israel. Where Gabriel is the one that is the herald that speaks to humanity the proclamations of God. Michael met with Joshua and is the one that protected the body of Moses, Gabriel visited Mary to announce the birth of Jesus through her.

Why does this excite me? Because angels were and are considered powerful beings. They have wisdom and strength beyond that of humanity, they were the ones that in the ancient days before Christ were the direct liaisons between God and humanity.  Because these being were wise and powerful beyond that of human understanding it would be tempting to consider these messengers to be gods. Which causes me to wonder could angels have visited other cultures, yet man in their fallen state misinterpreted as deities?

The writer of Hebrews begins by telling those that read this letter, in ancient days God spoke to the prophets in various ways but now He speaks to us through a Son through whom all worlds were created.  This is important to consider because prior to Christ the oracles of God were brought by the messengers, they spoke to humanity thought direct visits, or through dreams, they spoke words of wisdom and warning, they protected individuals and the nation. These spiritual beings of wisdom and power were the conduit from which the understanding of God flowed. But now the author says we are connected to something even greater, we are connected to the very being through which all things were created. We are entering into a new age, an age humanity has not yet experienced, an age of Emmanuel.

Let us now move to the second section of scripture, “Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.” The age of Emmanuel, God with us, is not subject to the angels. These wise and powerful beings have a different role, they are no longer the conduit, and instead Christ the very Son of God has provided the way, the knowledge, and the wisdom of God to mankind. This implies that prior to Christ the angels governed the world and the nations.

Do you see what I see? The prophets speak of a spiritual battle that was waged between the angelic hosts, where one third fell and followed Lucifer, Satan, and the devil. Within this spiritual humanity was caught in the middle which the prophets of old say caused the fall of humankind. If these beings were appointed to govern and guide humanity prior to Christ, they then became the gods of all the fallen and depraved nations. They set themselves up as the objects of worship and lead humanity away from the one true God. But for a while God made himself a little lower than these angelic beings, He made himself human for a specific reason to restore humanity back to where they were to be.

Our created purpose was to be the stewards of creation, to manipulate what God has provided to bring praise to Him. But when those spiritual beings appointed to guide our paths rejected God they brought confusion into all of creation. Sin entered the world. Instead of using creation to bring praise to God we began to exploit creation to obtain our own agendas. The results bring death, pain, and sorrow. But Christ came to restore and redeem humanity and all of creation.  He came to show us true life, and how to participate in that life. He came becoming the perfect human to provide us with the means and strength to overcome all the whiles of the fallen angels. Because He himself over came the only power the angelic beings lorded over us. They took life and brought in death, and Jesus removes the sting of death and transforms it into glory!

Where is this new age of which I speak? Why then do we not live in a world completely redeemed and restored? Why do we still struggle? That ancient battle still wages on between the spiritual forces, but they are being defeated. The gods of ancient Rome and Greece are no longer worshiped in temples but remain only in art and literature. The deities of Canaan and Babylon are only a dusty page of history. Those angelic beings that set themselves up as lords are now on the run and have cleverly hidden themselves within so many of the things we pursue, even things we perceive as honorable. They still have influence because they have influenced us for ages. We as humans must repent, turn from the things of this world and pursue God in Christ. We must actively pursue His life and lifestyle. Become a people that worship, pray, and serve. Become a nation that loves God, Embraces the Holy Spirt and Lives the Love of Christ with others. We must realign our lives to follow the pioneer of our faith, the hero that broke the chains that bound us in sin, and walk in the light of his Glory and Grace.

Jared A. Warner

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