Graduation(s) and a Memorable Trip

gradLinda and I have had the joy of celebrating two graduations in the past two weeks.

First, on Saturday, April 27th, we rejoiced with the 70+ graduates who received certificates, diplomas, and degrees at Heritage College and Seminary.  What a joy to see so many men and women finish this important milestone in their lives.  Now they head out to serve the Lord in large and small communities.  One seminary couple is headed for a pastoral position in High Level, Alberta (700 km north of Edmonton)!

IMG_0665Last Wednesday, May 8th, we were in Toronto to celebrate with our oldest son and his wife (Ryan and Jenny) as Ryan received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (Knox College).  Ryan serves as a teaching fellow with the Princeton Christian Fellowship, mentoring and teaching Princeton university students.  Our other two children (Michael and Lindsey) were able to fly in for the big event.

In between the two graduation ceremonies, Linda and I made a quick trip to California.  We were able to reconnect with dear friends from the two churches we served in California.  We also had the chance to visit Biola University (where we met) and visit a ministry training school that prepares missionaries to serve unreached people groups.  We even spent two days at Mt. Hermon, a Christian Conference Center that I often call “my favourite place on the planet.”

We’re happy to be back home in Cambridge and thankful for God’s goodness over these busy weeks of travel and celebrations.

 

 

 

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Tuesdays with Jeremiah (Chapter 51)

51The message of judgment upon Babylon continues from chapter 50 to 51.  Not only do these two chapters make the message to Babylon the longest, single oracle in the book, but the 64 verses in chapter 51 make it the longest chapter.  In other words, God has more than just a few words for the nation of Babylon.  As they have been the human instruments of destruction for Judah and the surrounding nations, so their fall is described in an extensive, epic way.

Throughout the chapter, the Lord claims responsibility for the downfall and destruction of Babylon. He is the one who plans her downfall (12, 29).  He is the One who “stirs up” the Medes and its allies to destroy the destroyer “of the whole earth” (1, 28).  He is the One who is taking vengeance on Babylon.

judgementThe theme of vengeance and vindication run through both chapters.  The Lord takes vengeance on Babylon to repay them (50:15, 28; 51:6, 11, 24, 56); the Lord restores His people to their homeland to vindicate them (52:10, 36).  Those who want to downplay the image of God taking retribution in a fierce, lethal way should steer clear of chapter 51:  “For the Lord is a God of retribution; he will repay in full” (56).

At the same time, this chapter highlights God’s faithfulness to vindicate His covenant people, Israel.  While it certainly appeared that God had forsaken Israel and Judah, bringing judgment and devastation on them, in reality, He had not abandoned them in spite of their sins against Him:  “For Israel and Judah have not been forsaken by their God, the Lord Almighty, though their land is full of guilty before the Holy One of Israel” (5).  After the seventy years of exile, He fulfills His promise to give them a future and hope (29:11) by punishing Babylon and allowing them to return to their own land: “The Lord has vindicated us; come, let us tell in Zion what the Lord our God has done” (10).

The reasons given for God’s vengeance upon Babylon are two-fold.  First, Babylon sinned against the Lord in its treatment of Israel.  While the Lord had used Babylon as His servant to punish His people and other nations (20), Babylon had still sinned (6) by slaying the “inhabitants of Zion” (24, 35, 49) and desecrating God’s temple (11).  Second, Babylon sinned against the Lord by relying on idols (17, 47).  The boasted in Bel (44) rather than acknowledging the Lord as the “Maker of all things” (19) and the true “King whose name is the LORD Almighty” (57).

Here is evidence that God uses sinful nations and peoples to accomplish His divine plans.  At the same time, He holds those same nations and people accountable for their actions when they sin—even while carrying out His purposes.  Babylon had been a “gold cup in the Lord’s hand” (7).  It had been God’s “war club” to “shatter nations” (20).  Now God would “repay in full” the sins Babylon committed while carrying out the Lord’s purposes (56).

Theologically, this helps us understand more about God’s ways in the world.  He moves individuals and nations to fulfill His plans without violating their own decision-making powers in the process.  He had moved Babylon to attack Judah in a way that allowed the actions to be fully owned by the Babylonians.  Nebuchadnezzar was God’s “servant” who carried out God’s purposes; at the same time, Nebuchadnezzar was a proud, sinful king who acted in his own interests.  The armies of Babylon were the Lord’s “war club”, used by God to “shatter” nations, armies, leaders and citizens of all ages (20-23).  At the same time, they were culpable for their war crimes.  So immediately after referring to the Babylonians as His “war club”, the Lord declares He “will repay Babylon and all who live in Babylonia for all the wrong they have done in Zion” (24).  Because the Babylonians were doing their will as they carried out God’s will, they are held accountable for their sinful actions.

The downfall of Babylon is predicted to come in a way that catches the king and his armies off guard.  The Medes who attack are said to “prepare an ambush” (12).  The Babylonians are taken down while feasting and getting drunk; at one moment they “shout with laughter” and then they “sleep forever” (39).  Their king of Babylon has courier after courier come to report the city is being overrun (31).

This prophetic prediction, delivered in the fourth year of Zedekiah’s reign (59), gives an accurate picture of how events would unfold over 80 years later. Belshazzar is partying with his officials, drinking wine out of the “goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem” (see Daniel 5:3) when he sees the writing on the wall.  Daniel deciphers the cryptic message (“mene, mene, tekel, parsin”) which announces  God’s impending judgment on the nation (5:25).  That very night, the invading Medes ambushed the Babylonians and captured the city.  Babylon fell quickly and was eventually reduced to rubble, a city “desolate forever” (26, 43).

This extended, 100-verse oracle against Babylon is not simply a message about the fall of a powerful nation, it is much more than that—it is a declaration of the greatness of God.  In chapters 50-51 we are given a grand vision of the LORD Almighty.  We learn four reasons why He is to be feared, obeyed and trusted.

  1. The Lord alone is God. Jeremiah’s message is a polemic against the false gods of the Babylonians. Bel, Marduk and the other Babylonian idols are a “fraud” (17).  “He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like these, for he is the Maker of all things” (19).
  1. The Lord controls the nations. Babylon’s rise to power and dominance over other nations was the result of God’s plan (7, 20-23).  Its demise was also determined by God (25, 47-48).
  2. The Lord is the just judge. The Lord repays Babylon for their sinful deeds (6).  He holds kings, armies, and nations accountable for their actions.  While judgment doesn’t always come as quickly as some would like, it does come (46-47).
  3. The Lord is faithful to His unfaithful people. In spite of their sins, God remains faithful to His unfaithful people:  “Israel and Judah have not been forsaken by their God” (5).
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Tuesdays with Jeremiah (Chapter 50)

50The pronouncement of God’s judgment on the nations concludes with two chapters about the Babylonians.  The oracles against Babylon are over twice the length of any of the messages directed to other foreign nations (Babylon—100 verses; Moab—47 verses; Egypt—26 verses; Philistia—6 verses; Edom—15 verses; Ammon—6 verses; Kedar/Hazor—6 verses; Syria—5 verses; Elam—5 verses).

The content and basic message of these two chapters (50-51) could have been shortened considerably; much of the material is a variation on the same theme of coming judgment.  However, since Babylon had been the instrument of Judah’s destruction and exile, it is logically and emotionally fitting that God’s judgment on them receives extended attention.  God is answering the imprecatory prayers of his people (Psalm 137).  He is proving again that He is Lord and Judge of all nations.  It will be apparent to all that “The Lord has taken vengeance, vengeance for his temple” (15, 28; see Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19).

There is no mistaking the truth that God is taking credit for planning (45), commanding (21) and accomplishing the punishing of Babylon (18).  He stirs up the armies of the north to attack (9).  He sets a trap for Babylon that they cannot avoid or escape (24).  The invading armies are part of His “arsenal” and are “weapons of His wrath” (25).  Those who have trouble with the concept of God ordering the Israelites to demolish the Canaanites need to realize that this was not a one-time aberration.  God prompts nations to attack other nations as a way of carrying out His righteous judgment upon them.

BabThe reasons for Babylon’s downfall and destruction are identified throughout the oracle:  Babylon relied on false gods (Bel, Marduk—2; idols–38) and false prophets (36); Babylon rejoiced in the pillaging of God’s inheritance (11), especially the Lord’s temple (28); Babylon had brutally “hammered” the other nations (23); Babylon had become “arrogant“ (31-32).  In short, Babylon had “sinned against the Lord” (14); it had “opposed the Lord” (24) and “defied the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” (29).

While the Babylonians had been chosen by God to carry out His judgment on Israel and the surrounding nations, they fulfilled their assignment in a sinful way.  Their arrogance, excessive brutality, and disregard for God’s temple (a sign of their disrespect for Him) were culpable.  They overstepped and overreached.  Now it was time for God’s payback:  “Repay her for her deeds; do to her as she has done.  For she has defied the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” (29).

The fall of Babylon is described in painful detail.  An “alliance of great nations from the land of the north” (3, 9, 41) will attack Babylon with swords and arrows.  The capture of the city will be surprisingly sudden (“you were caught before you knew it”—24).  Babylon will “surrender” (13) but her walls will still be torn down (13), her armies and population decimated (35-37), the city left desolate and uninhabited (3, 13, 39).    The great king of Babylon will be paralyzed by fear (43) and punished (18).  The destruction will be so complete that Babylon is compared to Sodom and Gomorrah (40).

Daniel 5 (as well as the Greek historian Herodotus) records the events surrounding the fall of the supposedly secure city.  An alliance of the Medes and Persians (the nations from the north) attacked, diverting water from a canal the flowed into the city (a possible allusion to this is found in verse 38).  Their troops entered the city on the dry waterbed and surprised Belshazzar (the frightened king—43; Daniel 5:6, 9) and his officials.  Babylon lost its prominence and ultimately became a desert, fulfilling Jeremiah 50:3:  “No one will live in it; both men and animals will flee away.”  Though Alexander the Great and Saddam Hussein had plans to rebuild it, Babylon remains a wasteland.

Embedded in this prophetic pronouncement against Babylon is a message of hope for the Jewish exiles in Babylon.  They will gain their freedom as Babylon falls to the armies of the north (4).  They will return to their homeland (5) and find rest (34).  Most importantly, they will be restored to a covenant relationship with God (5) and be fully forgiven for their many sins (20).

A closer look at the verses that envision Israel’s future release and restoration adds to our understanding of how God will deal with His unfaithful people.  We learn important details about their return from exile and their restoration to God.

returnReturn from exile.  Jeremiah 29:11 promised a “hope and a future” for the Jewish exiles in Babylon.  They would come to seek the Lord with all their hearts (29:12) and God would gather them “back from captivity” (29:14).  Now in Jeremiah 50 we see that this return is not without upheaval, confusion and danger.  In the chaos surrounding the capture of Babylon, the Jewish exiles are able to escape from the Babylonians who were “refusing to let them go” (33).  The Jews would “go in tears to seek the Lord”—we’re not told if these are tears of joy or distress.  As they flee from Babylon, they head to a homeland they had never seen; consequently, they must “ask the way to Zion” (5).  They must also make the long, dangerous journey back towards Jerusalem.  In short, God’s release and re-gathering of His people was not without significant upheaval.  We must not assume that God’s work in the lives of His people will always be smooth and peaceful.  Put another way, tears and fears do not necessarily mean God is not at work in our lives.

restorationRestoration to God.  The Lord not only promises to bring the exiles back to their homeland. He also promises to bring them back to Himself.  The returning exiles are said to “bind themselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant” (5).  While this could be a reference to a renewal of the Mosaic covenant, because of the prophecies in Jeremiah 31, I would see this as an allusion to the coming New Covenant (31:31-34).

In His unfailing love, the Lord not only allows His sinning people to return to Him, He also completely blots out their sins:  “In those days, at that time . . . search will be made for Israel’s guilt but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgiven the remnant I spare” (20).  Oh the mercy of God to remove sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12).  Because of the New Covenant that Jesus inaugurated by His blood, there is full and final forgiveness for those who bind themselves in covenant with God through faith in Christ.  Bless the Lord O my soul!

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Prayer Update Graduation Weekend

HTomorrow begins Graduation Weekend here at Heritage.  There is a great amount of excitement in the air for what’s ahead.

On Friday evening, we will have our annual Grad Banquet.  After a delicious buffet dinner, we will hear from both the college and seminary valedictorians.  A number of awards will be handed out to deserving students.  I (Rick) will give a challenge to the grads about being “well known to Jesus” (2 Corinthians 6:9).  We are trusting the Lord for a rich and memorable evening.

gradOn Saturday morning, we will hold our Graduation Ceremony.  Over 70 grads will walk the stage and receive diplomas or degrees.  Dr. Norm Millar, the lead pastor at Redemption Bible Chapel in London, will be our commencement speaker.  We will worship the Lord and celebrate His grace in helping this year’s graduates complete their diplomas and degrees in preparation for serving Christ with their lives.

After graduation, our Heritage Board of Directors will convene for our quarterly Board Meeting.  In addition to rejoicing over the past year, we have some exciting matters to discuss related to the school’s future.

SERVEIn the following days, a number of our students will be heading out for summer ministries.  One of our worship teams will leave on Saturday afternoon for a week-long tour in Northern Ontario.  Early next week a team of our SERVE students will depart for summer missions in Thailand; another group will fly to serve the Lord in Portugal.  Many other students will be involved in summer internships in local churches and Christian camps.  Others will be headed for summer jobs, earning funds to continue their studies at Heritage in the fall.

I’d ask you to join me in praying that the Lord would be honoured through our Graduation Weekend events.  Also, please pray for the students as they serve the Lord in a variety of places in Canada and around the world.

Thanks for praying!  God has been answering our prayers in wonderful ways.

 

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Tuesdays with Jeremiah (Chapter 49)

49bWhere each of the three previous chapters was a message from God for a specific nation (46—Egypt, 47—Philistia, 48—Moab), chapter 49 contains messages for at least six nations or people groups:  Ammon (1-6), Edom (7-22), Syria (23-27), Kedar and Hazor (28-33) and Elam (29-39).  The messages begin with those closest in proximity to Judah (both geographically and relationally) and extend to those quite distant and removed from them.  Together these pronouncements demonstrate God’s sovereignty over all nations—near and far. (These messages are referenced in Jeremiah 25:15-26).

nationsEach of the messages announces the coming of a severe judgment that will ruin their cities and devastate their populations.  This coming judgment will be carried out by the Babylonian armies:  “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has plotted against you; he has devised a plan against you” (30).  However, the Lord makes it unmistakably clear, that this judgment is His doing:  “I will set fire to the walls of Damascus” (27); “’I will scatter to the winds those who are in distant places and will bring disaster on them from every side,’ declares the Lord” (32); “I will pursue them with the sword until I have made an end of them” (37).

In some instances, the Lord explains the reason for this decimation.  The Ammonites are rebuked for occupying land that was given to Israel (1).  The Edomites are reproved for their pride and trust in their natural fortifications (16).  However, in the case of Syria, Kedar, Hazor and Elam, no specific sins are mentioned as the reason for their downfall at the hands of the Babylonians.  While this doesn’t mean they were innocent (all ancient peoples were idolatrous and wicked—see 25:31), God does not specify their sins.  In fact, there is a curious verse tucked in the midst of the message to Edom that implies not all nations were equally guilty before God:  “If those who do not deserve to drink the cup must drink it, why should you go unpunished?” (12).  God is not obligated to explain or defend His actions.  We do not sit in judgment of His judgments; instead we acknowledge Him as “the judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25).

Here again we see God working His will for nations and people through the seemingly natural and unprompted choices of human leaders.  Nebuchadnezzar devised plans against these nations (30).  He had his own empire-building reasons for each of the attacks.  For a time, he saw himself as large and in charge (see Daniel 4).  Yet, behind these royal and national decisions was God’s decree.  God determined the course of history before it played out on earth (see Psalm 33:10-11) For an interesting discussion on how to talk about God’s providence when writing about human history, see this article on Justin Taylor’s Gospel Coalition blog:  http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2014/12/04/should-christian-historians-appeal-to-providence-in-their-interpretations/

As noted above, Jeremiah 49 contains prophecies against six nations or people groups (two of which are combined so that the chapter breaks into five sections).  Here is a brief summary of the distinctives of each message:

The Message about Ammon (1-6)

Like the Moabites, the Ammonites were descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot and so were distant relatives of the Israelites.  And like the Moabites, they had a history of hostility with Israel.  God’s message to them through Jeremiah begins by questioning why they had occupied land given to Israel (1).  God warns that “days are coming” when Ammon will be attacked, destroyed and driven out.  Israel will then regain the land in Gad that they had lost to the Ammonites (2).  In addition to Ammon’s encroachment on Israel’s land, their sin of pride is mentioned as a reason for the coming judgment (4).  In spite of God’s determination to decimate Ammon, He promises a future flourishing of its people (6).

The Message about Edom (7-22)

The longest message in this chapter is directed to Edom.  In wording similar to Obadiah, God declares that Edom will be invaded and stripped bare (10).  While they will try to hide in their mountain fortresses, God will bring them down (8, 16).  The Lord describes the nation as deserving punishment (12) and mentions their pride as blinding them to the possibility of coming judgment (16).  Here again God speaks of the judgment as coming from Him:  “Therefore, hear what the Lord has planned against Edom” (20).  Judgment comes from the Lord but comes through an invading nation (likely Babylon):  “Look! An eagle will soar and swoop down” (22).

The Message about Damascus (23-27)

The brief message about the coming judgment on Syria focuses on the fall of Damascus.  No reason is given for God’s judgment, but the Lord does speak of Damascus as “the town in which I delight” (25).

The Message about Kedar and Hazor (28-33)

This proclamation of coming judgment is directed to two people groups living “east” of Judah (28).  The nomadic peoples of Kedar and Hazor felt secure because of their isolation and mobility (“a nation at ease, which lives in confidence”—31).  No reason is given for their decimation at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (28).

The message about Elam (34-39)

Elam was a distant people from Judah (in modern day Iran).  While it was an ancient civilization, it was a nation with little impact on Israel.  The fact that God would have Jeremiah pronounce coming judgment on this distant people underscores his role as a prophet to the nations (1:10) and highlights God’s sovereign control over all peoples.  As in the case of the Ammonites (6), this message ends with a promise of future restoration (39).  God has a heart for people groups far from the heart of His people Israel.

 

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What’s So Good About Good Friday?

Yesterday at the Good Friday service at Grandview Baptist Church, they showed this video reflection on “What’s So Good About Good Friday?”  I was impacted by it’s message.  I hope you will be as well.

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Tuesdays with Jeremiah (Chapter 48)

48The third nation addressed, after Egypt (46) and Philistia (47), is Moab, a nation on the eastern side of the Dead Sea.  Jeremiah’s message to the people and cities of Moab is lengthy, longer than pronouncement against Egypt and exceeded only by the prophecy against Babylon (50-51).  Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Moabites were descendants of Lot (and the nation from which Ruth came); consequently, their hostility against Israel less expected and more heinous than that of many other nations.

moabAnother unusual feature of the prophetic word to Moab is the number of cities mentioned (about twenty-five).  God is making it clear that the judgment will come against “every town, and not a town will escape” (8).  If Jeremiah had wanted to do so, he could have easily shortened the message by omitting the names of Moabite cities (no other nation has as many of its cities singled out for impending judgment).  The fact that God moved Jeremiah to list them indicates both an extensive knowledge of Moab and an extensive judgment on Moab.

The instrument of Moab’s destruction is not specifically mentioned, although in historical context, the usual suspect would be the Babylonians.  Indeed, historical records from Josephus claim that Moab lost independence to Babylon in 582.  After this, Moab soon ceases to be known as a nation.

As in other prophecies, Jeremiah pictures the distress, devastation and shame that will accompany God’s judgment.  Jeremiah speaks of the “anguished cries” of the people (5), the frantic fleeing of its inhabitants (19), the helplessness of its defenders (“the hearts Moab’s warriors will be like the heart of a woman in labour”—41) and the mourning of the surviving remnant (shaved heads and beards, slashed hands and sackcloth—37).

Jeremiah makes it clear that Moab has not experienced this kind of widespread judgment in its past.  The people of Moab had been “at rest from youth.” (11).  Jeremiah compares Moab to a jar of “wine left on its dregs, not poured from one jar to another” (11).  In the coming days, God would send “men who pour from jars” to empty her (take her into exile—11) and “smash her jugs” (12).

Why the coming, catastrophic judgment on Moab?  Jeremiah’s prophecy identifies several significant reasons:  Moab’s pride, scorn for Israel and idolatry.

pridePride (towards self): Moab’s pride had become overt and obvious to others:  “We have heard of Moab’s pride—her overweening pride and conceit, her pride and arrogance and the haughtiness of her heart” (29).  Having enjoyed years of peace and security (11), having become wealthy (7, 36) and built fortified cities (18), Moab had become a proud people.  Twice (26, 42) we are told that Moab “defied the Lord” (Hebrew: magnified against the Lord). Since “God opposes the proud” (James 4:6), He judges Moab.

scornScorn (towards others):  An expression of Moab’s pride was its scorn for Israel.  There should have been a natural affinity for Israel since Moab descended from Lot.  Instead, Moab joined those who rejoiced in Israel’s downfall:  “Was not Israel the object of your ridicule?” (27).  Instead of compassion, there was only contempt (Prov. 24:17).  God took this ridicule of His people personally and dealt with Moab severely.

idolIdolatry (towards God):  The judgment on Moab is a judgment on Chemosh, Moab’s chief god (7, 13,46).  The worship of this false god had been brought to Jerusalem by Solomon (1 Kings 11:7) and officially put to an end by Josiah (2 Kings 23:13).  However, since Josiah’s sons tolerated the resurgence of idolatry, there may have been Jews who still worshiped the “detestable god of Moab” (1 Kings 11:7).

The application of all this is not hard to see.  God brings shattering trouble on those who sin through pride (reliance on my own resources or reputation), scorn (disgust mixed with derision) or idolatry (exchanging the true God for a counterfeit).

What strikes me with most force from this chapter is the unexpected combination of fierce judgment and deep lament that we see within God’s attitude and actions.  He unapologetically brings “shattering” (39) judgment on an entire nation—including the “little ones”(4).  He brings in a conquering army, calling them to execute His judgment with deadly force:  “A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord’s work!  A curse on him who keeps his sword from bloodshed” (10).  Yet, at the same moment, His heart is filled with sadness and lament for the Moabites He is judging:  “Therefore I wail over Moab, for all Moab I cry out” (31); “So my heart laments for Moab like a flute” (36).  Oh, the deep love and fierce wrath of God!  We humans cannot contain both emotions in our heart at the same time.  We toggle between the two.  Yet God simultaneously and eternally delights in “kindness, justice and righteousness” (9:24).

Many people in the West are reinterpreting or simply rejecting the “war texts” of Scripture (especially the conquest in Joshua) as barbaric and unworthy of God.  Some say that the events described in Joshua never happened—they claim that God did not (and would not) command the widespread annihilation of the Canaanites.   They see themselves as rescuing God’s reputation, as defending His image as a God who is love (1 John 4:7-8).  What they miss is that God’s nature remains loving even as he executes righteous judgment.   He laments over the devastation that He brings upon the wicked (including those we would call the innocents or “little ones”).  Conversely, He shatters those who defy Him even as He weeps over their destruction.

One of the most remarkable features of this prophetic message is its ending:  “’Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the days to come,’ declares the Lord” (47).  Here again we see the compassionate heart of God for all peoples—even an arrogant, idolatrous nation like Moab.  While some see a historical resurgence for Moab, my sense is that the promise finds its fulfillment in the promise that people from every “nation, tribe, people and language” will be included in the heavenly company of believers (Rev. 9:7)

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