Matthew 5:14-16

Last week we saw how Jesus said, “I am the light of the world, the one who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of light of life.” We said that the second article of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ” is the bright light in the center of the room that cast light upon the dark corners of the first article of the Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty…”, and the third article of the creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

We see the creation all around us, but apart from Jesus Christ the Creator is hidden from us. Jesus changes this. In John 1:18 we read, “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus Christ. I once watched surgeons pick bone chips out of a man’s hip, where they had removed his leg. I knew him before the stroke which had caused the loss of his leg. So, I watched as long as I could, lest he should awaken. I wanted to know I had not change in regard to him. When I could stand no more, I went into the hall outside his room and asked, “God, do you care about us? Do you feel our pain, do you know our suffering?” Almost immediately, an answer came to me in the words of a hymn addressed to Jesus Christ by Charles Wesley. “Amazing love, and can it be that thou my God shouldest die for me.” Since that time I have faced every difficult situation—whether it affected me or someone I care about in the sure confidence God does care; and we know God cares because we believe that in Jesus Christ God stepped down out of the frame of the universe to reveal that “God is with us.”

And what about the light that Jesus cast upon the Holy Spirit? Apart from Jesus the Holy Spirit remains a shadowy figure that many Christians find more fearful than inspirational. When I was taking clinical pastoral education at the University of Kentucky, I watched a film of snake handlers. Their faith is based on the long ending of Mark’s gospel that is not original to the gospel. It was added in the 3rd Christian Century. As the film began, the pastor greeted several ladies in the congregation with “a holy kiss,” right on the mouth, which revealed itself as pure lasciviousness, then he brought out the snakes and encouraged the faithful to handle them. He said that no Spirit filled Christians need fear the snakes. As I watched the film, I said to myself, “This is not the work of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is Christ-like.” The Methodist missionary and evangelists Stanley Jones was once invited to preach in the largest Methodist church in California. The pastor asked him his topic. Jones said, “I will speak on the Holy Spirit.” The pastor said, “Please, don’t; we don’t want any of those Holy Spirit antics in our church.” Stanley Jones said, “You need not fear. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and the work of the Spirit is to make us more Christ-like.” The pastor said, “Then by all means, speak on the Holy Spirit.”

In Romans 8:9-11, St. Paul says:

9b Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.

The Holy Spirit is the lowest common denominator of our Christian discipleship. The Spirit alone is “the guarantee of our inheritance until we receive possession of it.” (Ephesians 1:14) The Holy Spirit does many other things in the life of every believer. I would mention three:

First, the Holy Spirit is God’s seal, or mark of ownership upon us. More than thirty years ago my mother-in-law gave me a library seal for Christmas. When I get a new book, the first thing I do is mark the title page of the book with that seal. It embosses the page with the declaration that the book is, “From the Library of Worth Green.” In the same way, when we turn in faith to Jesus Christ, God marks us with the seal of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is the outward sign of this reality, but the Holy Spirit himself is the ultimate seal. In Luke 11, Jesus told his disciples that God is as willing to give us the Holy Spirit, as we are willing to receive the Holy Spirit, saying:

What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Second, the Holy Spirit witnesses to us that we belong to God. The early Moravians taught this doctrine. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, made it universally known among Christians. Wesley said that the witness of the Holy Spirit was two fold. First, the witness of the Holy Spirit consists of the visible signs of our discipleship. “If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation, the old has passed away, the new has come.” (2nd Corinthians 5:17) When we come to Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we put away those things that separate us from him, and from one another. “A tree is known by its fruits,” and Christians are known by our actions. Second, the witness of the Holy Spirit os what Wesley called “an inward impress upon the soul.” The shiver of anticipation that we feel when we enter the church on Ash Wednesday to take the Holy Communion is the witness of the Holy Spirit. So is the feeling of calm and confidence we have when we watch the sun sink over the mountains or into the sea, and have no fear of the day’s end. I cannot imagine that God would adopt us as his children in Jesus Christ, and then deny us all tokens of his love and affection. God not only wants to make us his children, he wants us to have no doubt about our relationship. In Romans 8:15-17, St. Paul wrote:

When we cry, ‘Abba, Father,’ it is the Holy Spirit bearing witnesses with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Jesus Christ, provided that we suffer with him in order that we might be glorified with him.

The witness of the Holy Spirit is not constant. We see from the Romans text that it is occasional; but it is real. So, too, I think it interesting that St. Paul associates the witness of the Holy Spirit with suffering, for it is in suffering that God is closest to us.

Third, the Holy Spirit is God’s power in us. Jesus was the son of God, but he was also the son of man. Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and it was possession of the Holy Spirit that gave him the power to endure temptation, perform cures, cast out evil spirits, love his enemies, and otherwise work the works of God. In John 14:12 Jesus speaks to his disciples saying,  “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.” And a few verses later, in John 14:14-15 Jesus explains how it is possible that our works (collectively) exceed his own. He said:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever.

In the book of Acts, the evangelists uses the Greek word from which we get our English word “dynamite” to describe the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers. We may think ourselves powerless, but the New Testament declares that the same power that God used to lift Jesus from death to eternal life is available to us, too, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life. One man, one woman, plus God is equal to any situation.

I hope you have noted that there is a progression of the Holy Spirit, from the Father, to the Son, and from the Son to his disciples, including you and me. Likewise, there is a progress of the “light of life,” which is from the Father, to the son who reveals the Father, to the disciples of the Son, who reveals the Father and the Son.

In John 8:12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world, and he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” In John 9:5 Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” And in John 12:36 Jesus said to his disciples, “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become children of light.” If we believe in Jesus, we are the children of light, and it is our turn to shine. In Matthew 5:14-16 Jesus speaks to his disciples, and to us through them saying:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

As I considered this text, I was intrigued with the phrase, “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” I jotted down four things that were a result of my reflections.

First, we must not overlook the fact that a city on a hill is still a city. People come together as a city (or any political unit) for the sake of the common good. The common good of the city is so important, that in Jeremiah 29:7 God speaks through his prophet and tells his people to seek the welfare of the city where they have been sent into exile, that is, infamously, “Babylon.” The text declares, “Pray to the LORD on behalf of the city, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The only time a city ceases to become a city is when its citizens begin to struggle against one another, and the city falls into chaos. The only time the church ceases to be the church is when its members begin to bite and devour one another, and its members start to look just like world around them. A city on a hill is still a city, and the people of a city have come together for the common good. In order for the church to work for the common good, which for us is the good that Christ wills for us, is in our loyalty to him, that issues in loyalty to one another. That is what Count Zinzendorf was getting at when he wrote:

Christian hearts, in love united,
Seek alone in Jesus rest;
Has He not your love excited?
Then let love inspire each breast;
Members on our head depending
Lights reflecting Him, our sun,
Brethren His commands attending,
We in Him, our Lord, are one.

Second, a city implies a safe-haven in a dark and dangerous world. In ancient times, the greatest cities were surrounded by walls, and entered by gates. In ancient near-East, it was the duty of a city to provide travelers with hospitality and a safe-haven. In Genesis 19, during the time of Abraham, God destroys the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sins of the city. According to the text, one sin is the threat of homosexual rape. We know from a parallel text that another sin is that the cities did not obey the ancient laws of hospitality. A parallel text is found in Judges 19. The events the chapter describes take place long after the time of Abraham, but long before Israel had a king. In Judges 19, the tribes of Israel come together to destroy those who dwell in the city of the Jebusites, which came to be known as Jerusalem, because they failed to offer hospitality and protection to “a certain Levite” and his concubine. Whatever else it does, or fails to do, a church must provide people with hospitality and a safe-haven. A church may not find you a job. A church may not find pay your rent, or buy you a car. A church may not affirm your theology or your politics. A church can fail to do all that and still be the church as long as a church provides you with hospitality and a safe-haven. In his poem, death of a hired man, Robert Frost says that “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” That is a perfect description of church, too.

Third, a city set on a hill is aid to navigation. In the ancient world, many a traveler rejoiced to crest a hill, and see the lights of a city spread out before him in the distance. I know how important it is to see a light in the dark. Years ago, when I was much younger, and much more daring, I used to hunt in the area of Surry County known as Devotion. One night, I did not come off my stand until it was full dark. There was no moon, and no stars, and no artificial light of any kind, and I had left my compass at home. I could see the outline of the dark trees against the light shade of the night sky, but I could not see the path in front of me. Thinking I was traveling in the right direction, I went down the wrong side of a finger, and that took me down the wrong side of the mountain. For more than hour, I walked confidently away from my true goal. When I finally admitted my mistake, I started to contemplate a long cold night in woods. Then I thought to pray. I prayed a very specific prayer. I prayed that God would send a car along a road, so that I could see its lights, and get a direction. A few minutes later, I saw thin, faint, reflected light move in the darkness. I counted it as an answer to my prayer, and set out in that direction. After about another hour, I struck the road, and followed it in the dark until I found my car. I never did see another light, but I was oh so grateful for the lights from that one automobile. The people of this world are traveling in darkness. Few will see the light of God, unless they see it reflected in the light of God’s people. As my mother used to say, “The only Christ the world will see is the Christ it sees in you and me.” The way we live our lives does indeed matter.

Fourth, a city on a hill reveals not one light but many. Though we cannot see it without the help of a prism, every white light contains many colored rays. The work of the Holy Spirit is to make us Christ-like, yet I have never believed it is my job, or your job, to be Jesus Christ. There is only one light that is Jesus Christ. Jesus was undoubtedly a person of color, yet he is the white light that contains all the colored rays. You and I make up the spectrum. We are Roy G. Biv. You are Red, Orange, Yellow, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. I am Green. “It is not easy being green.” Never the less, it is because we are all different that together we make up the white light of Christ. To use another metaphor, he is the head of the body which is the church, and we are his members, his hands and feet …in the world.

Not only does every light contain many colored rays, but the lights of a city on a hill are many. The late Herbert Weber used to tell the story of a preacher who was invited to preach in the outback of Australia. It was not yet dark when he and his hosts arrived at the little church which was miles from nowhere. The preacher was surprised there were no lights in the building. He quizzed his host about this, and his hosts said, “Oh, come and see.” They stepped back outside the church, and immediately the preacher saw moving lights, here and there scattered about in the darkness. As he watched, the lights came together, and converged on the little church. Each light represented an individual, or a family, carrying a lantern. When at last, all the people had entered the church with their lighted lamps, the whole place was filled with light. Then, when the service was over, the preacher watched with satisfaction as the lights scattered toward their homes. Then his host lit a lamp for them, and they went home, too. I have always regarded Herbert’s story as the perfect illustration of what happens in a church. When we gather together to worship and serve the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, we pool our lights and bask in their light and warmth. We are like a light set on a stand, that gives light to all in the house. Then, when we depart, we carry our lights out into the world, so that we might be a light in the darkness for those who wander the world without direction, lost between the womb and the tomb, not knowing that they have come from God, and that God intends they should come back to him. No wonder Jesus said to his disciples, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”


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(The first of three stewardship sermons on “The Light”. Next week we will talk about “A City on a Hill,” and the week after that, “The Light in the Darkness.”)

I remember a story that circulated at my seminary back in the early 1970’s. A young college student heard one of his professors say that “God is dead!” At first he was shaken; but not long after he embraced the idea with enthusiasm. He said, “God is dead, and I am glad, because now my mind can expand until it fills the universe!” This young man may have been a seminary myth, a teaching tool for one of my professors, but he represented a real category of people. For some people rejoice to think that we human beings are the apex of what we call creation, the tip top of the food chain, the little light in the great darkness, the only being in the universe who can fully appreciate what it means that there is a universe, and that we human beings have a place in it. The author of Psalms 14 has a word people who think like this. He writes, “The Fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God!’”

Others are less enthusiastic about the so called “death of God;”but they have adjusted to it. They live their lives not with joy, but with a calm stoicism. Perhaps you are familiar with Albert Camus’s novel, “The Stranger.” The hero of the tale is a victim twice over. He is a victim of circumstance. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he kills a man to protect a new friend. He is also a victim of his own moral emptiness. His mother has recently died, and people noted his total lack of grief. The prosecutor uses this as evidence against his character, the jury convicts him of murder not manslaughter, and the judge sentences him to death. The night before his execution, a pious old priest comes to see him, but he drives the priest away with a torrent of violent curses. The prisoner is man alone. He will not stoop to accept the comforts of religion. At last, by himself in his cell, the prisoner waits for the dawn and his own certain death. As he waits, he contemplates “the benign indifference of the universe.” The stars took no notice of his life; they will take no notice of his death. The apostle has a word for people such as the prisoner. In Ephesians 2:12 he writes that they are “without God” and “without hope” in the world.

Let me venture one more example. There are those who attend church every Sunday who more and more think that they, too, may someday be “without God” and “without hope” in the world. A friend recently told me that he is always loneliest, not when he is alone, but when he is in the midst of a crowd. So, too, there are those who feel the absence of God most, not on the six days of the week they are out in the world , earning a living, and doing what they do; but on the seventh day when they come to church, and sit in the pew, and sing the hymns, and pray the liturgy, and listen to the preacher, and envy the faith of those around them. Ultimately, many people start to stay away from church because church reminds them of the faith they once took for granted. These are they who confess with Job, “I am hemmed in by darkness, and thick darkness covers me.” (Job 23:17)

Is there any hope for those who without God and without hope in the world?

I believe there is. In John 8:12 , Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives and spoke to those who had gathered to hear him saying:

“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will 
not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus is the light of the world because the public life of Jesus cast light upon the mystery that is God.

This morning, as a part of our liturgy, we confessed our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. The Great 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth said that the 2nd article of the Apostles Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” is the bright light in the center of the room that sheds light on the dark corners of the first article of the creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” and third article of the creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

The first article of the creed confesses, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” We confess God the Father Almighty is the creator of heaven and earth; but the creator remains a mystery. He is:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise;
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.

Few people have been invited into the light which is the Lord God Almighty. In Exodus 19 we read that Moses went up the mountain to see God, and Exodus 33 tell us with some reservation that Moses met with God,”face to face, as a man might meet with his friend.” Yet, when Moses went up the mountain, he left the people of Israel at the base of the mountain. They did not see what Moses saw. They saw only clouds and thick darkness. They saw the lightning and heard the thunder, but God remained hidden from them.

Thankfully, that is not the end of the story. In Isaiah 64:1 the prophet begged God to “tear open the sky and come down,” and make his presence known in terms of cause and effect, as when fire causes water to boil. In the person of Jesus Christ, God answered that prayer. The first chapter of St. John’s Gospel tells that story:

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 was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men…(then, in verse 14) And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

From start to finish the life of Jesus cast light upon the mystery that is God. In John 4:34 Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of God and to accomplish his work.” In John 5:17 Jesus, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” In John 14 Jesus says, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” and “the Father who dwells in me does his works.” In John 17:4 Jesus prayed to his Father saying, “I have accomplished the work which you, gave me to do.” And in John 19:30 Jesus says, “It is finished!” The meaning is clear. What God wills, Jesus does. What Jesus does, God does. This associates a new superlative with the name of God. Of all the faiths in all the world, only Christians can say that God is Christ-like!

E. Stanley Jones the Methodist Missionary and evangelists was speaking to a goup of Hindu’s. He told them that God is Christ-like and said, “If God is not like Jesus Christ, I want nothing to do with him.” One Hindu who was present responded, “That is Bahakti, devotion par excellence.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner said, “It took Christianity to introduce to the world the idea of a God who suffers with his people.” If God is not like Jesus, then Jesus has had a better idea! Have no fear, God is Christ-like.

Now, some will accuse Christians of hubris for saying that God is Christ-like. I have a dear friend that converted from Christianity to Judaism. Not long after the conversion, I asked him why he converted. He said to me, “Worth, I converted in part because I got tired of the arrogant certainty of some Christians; some Christians act like they have lock on God. They act like then know all there is to know about God.” I said, “I apologize for that. When we Christians say that that we know God through Jesus Christ, we do not mean to say that we know all there is to be known of God. God can always show us more of God’s Self. What we mean is that we are certain that all future revelations of God will be Christ-like.” That’s it! God is Christ-like!

Jesus throws light upon the mystery that is God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and Jesus throws light upon the mysterious presence that we call the Holy Spirit.

In the third article of the creed, we confess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” It can be just as hard to understand the Holy Spirit, as to understand God the Father Almighty. The chief reason for this is that the person and work of the Spirit is sometimes clouded by human claims. In John 20 Jesus breathed upon his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” That invitation is for all the disciples of Jesus in all times and all places and this can lead to confusion and conflict.

Let me illustrate. When I was still the new associate pastor of The Little Church on the Lane, a man came to my house, and pumped-up my ego with praise. He spent no little time doing this, then he told me that the Holy Spirit had been telling him to tell me that I was to attend such and such a meeting, at such and such a place, and at such and such a time. I knew that my senior pastor did not want me to attend that meeting, so I spoke to him in the same way that he had spoken to me. I said, “That is funny, the Holy Spirit has been telling me that the last thing he wants me to do is to attend that meeting.” Just a week later, that meeting became a source of great conflict in my church; and four families left because of it. Had I been caught up in that conflict, my ministry in the Moravian Church would have been finished.

Let me give you one more example of the problem. I once heard a professor at Princeton joke that when conservatives spoke, “the Holy Spirit spoke right,” and when liberals spoke, “the Holy Spirit spoke left.” He was making a joke to make a point. Anybody can claim to have the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and sometimes it is difficult to tell the false prophets from the genuine prophets.

There is only one way we can. In John 7:39 we read that in the time of Jesus’s ministry, the Holy Spirit was not yet given to the disciples, because Jesus himself was not yet glorified. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is glorified in his death and resurrection. The meaning of John 7 is clear: The Holy Spirit was not give to the disciples of Jesus until Jesus had fixed the character of the Holy Spirit from his birth to his death, and beyond. If God is Christ-like, so is God’s Holy Spirit, Christ-like. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. People under the control of the Holy Spirit will act, at least in some measure, like Jesus himself acted. If they fail to do that, dare I say if we fail to do that, then we do not speak for the Holy Spirit at all. I am not suggesting it is easy to discern the Spirits, and I always want to do that work in community, but I do believe it is possible. As the apostle says, “We must discern the spirits.” (1st Corinthians 2:14). Jesus Christ shines a light upon God. Jesus shines a light upon the mystery which is God the father Almighty, and Jesus shines a light upon the mysterious presence of the Holy Spirit. More than anything else, because Jesus is perfect God become perfect man, Jesus shines a light upon the work that God does in and through him for the sake of the whole human race.

Mark these contrasts. I will name just three.

First, apart from Jesus Christ, we live in the anxious middle, we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going. Our lives are bound on one end by the darkness of the womb, and on the other by the deeper darkness of the tomb. In Jesus Christ we know that we have come from God, and we are going to God. That means that nothing in this live has the ability to put us off the track. Nothing we suffer goes for nought. In John 11:25 Jesus says, “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and he who lives and believes in me shall never die.” This means that Jesus not only gives us the hope of eternal life, he delivers us from the fear of death.

Second, apart from Jesus we live on the dark side of the street. In John 3:19 we read that we human beings love darkness rather than light, because the darkness hides our evil deeds. Jesus exposes our darkest deeds, and invites us to come without shame into the light. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and Jesus promised him a new birth in the Spirit, which is to say, a brand new life, a new beginning, a blank slate. As Christians we believe that “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” That is found in 1st Corinthians 15:3. As Christians we believe that Jesus Christ bore our sins in his body on the cross. That is found in 1st Peter 2:24. What does all this theological mumbo jumbo mean? It means that if we have confessed our sins, and turned to in faith to Jesus Christ, then we may still remember our sins, but we must remember them like they happened to somebody else, for Jesus Christ has claimed our sins as his own, and pronounced us innocent of any wrong doing. That is the gospel, the good news!

Third, apart from Jesus we stumble along the road of life in the darkness. We may know where we have been, but we are never too sure about where we are going. There is a reason people cling to the past, complain about the present, and refuse to make decisions about the future. The past, as good or as bad as it has been, is a sure thing. The future is anything but a sure thing. We rarely see very far into the future. Ordinarily we see only the next step. That is what the Psalmist is getting at when he said that the scripture is “a lamp unto his feet, and a light unto his path.” In those days, a lamp burned beaten olive oil, and it cast a very small circle of light. We can see a little way, but not far. We take one step, then, perhaps we can see to take another, then another. Of course, sooner or later we come to a place where we can not even see the next step we have to take. It was Edward Teller, who has been called, “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” and “the real Dr. Strangelove,” who said:

“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time
 to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that 
one of two things will happen: either you will be given something
 solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”

Teller was a devout Jew who said, “We need God,” and he thought it was a shame that we had not seen God in many thousands of year. I hope he took some solace in what he heard of Jesus . Of course, Jesus himself said it is only those who “follow him” who will benefit fully from the light of life he cast upon the darkness of our world. The closer we follow him, the more sure we become. It was Francis Schafer who said, “If you are following a road in the dark, and someone says, ‘There is no road,’ you know there is, for you can feel the smoothness of it under your feet, and so it is with those who follow Jesus.”

Here at New Philadelphia, we have seen the next step. We have called Joe Moore to be our associate pastor. There is a next step we must take, and another step after that. The important thing is to believe that Jesus Christ can see further into the future than we can. The only think he ask of us is that we keep stepping, following him in the light that we have.


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