“Big Enough to Be Small” (Philippians 2:5-11)

People don’t usually look for ways to get demoted. They try to go up the ladder of success not down. But if the eternal Son of God had a birthday on that first Christmas, it was a voluntary choice for demotion. It was the ultimate pay cut. It was the ultimate story of riches to rags. And he did it willingly. The Creator willingly became part of his creation. The Master Artist willingly became part of his painting. The Eternal One willingly became part history and subject to time. The One who is called in John’s gospel “the Light” took off his robe of light and wrapped himself in skin, winding up in Bethlehem’s manger two thousand years ago. The Apostle Paul’s Carmen Christi (“Hymn to Christ”) in Philippians 2:5-11 describes just how low he went. And then how high. It’s a summary of his full journey. 

The Swiss theologian Emil Bruner was the first to suggest that we can represent this three-fold movement of our Lord’s ministry using the mathematical formula of a parabola (y = x2), a journey from glory to humiliation, and back to glory again. This Christmas Eve sermon focuses on the first part of Jesus’ parabola. “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” It’s hard to get our minds around such a mystery. Deity in diapers? Elohim with elbows and eyebrows? How can this be?  T. S. Eliot described the newborn Christ as “the word within a word, unable to speak a word.” In Disney’s Aladdin, Genie (Robin Williams) described his own spatial paradox like this: “Cosmic, phenomenal power, itty bitty living space!” That was even more true of Jesus! He was big enough to be small. Indeed, he made the crucial decision to have a birthday in Bethlehem, leaving the splendors of heaven to be with us in our distress. 

After his atoning death on the cross, God the Son rose from the dead to give his people a “new birth” day. “Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth.” Indeed, God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. And now he lives inside his people by the Holy Spirit. Lest you think you’re not worthy to have Christ come and live inside of you, consider all the dark and dreadful places he’s already been, all the places he’s already chosen to go: The dark womb of a teenager. The rough manger of Bethlehem. The red-light district of Nazareth. The corrupt temple in Jerusalem. The flogging post of a Roman torture yard. The bloody cross of Mount Calvary. The dark, damp ledge of the garden tomb. Do you think Jesus could be surprised by any dirt or darkness he might find in your in your own heart? No—that dirt and darkness is precisely why he came. “Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Give him your sin, and he will give you his divine life. Merry Christmas.

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He Is Coming, Part 4: “Be Available” (Luke 1:26-38)

December is a time when many believers remind others that we need to put Christ back into Christmas. O.k., but why stop there? We also need to put Satan back into Christmas. If we take the biblical account seriously, he’s the reason for the mess we’re in today. Things like greed, selfishness, violence, injustice, abuse, alienation, and death can all be laid at his doorstep. That’s why 1 John 3:8 says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” One of our Christmas carols contains the same idea: “To save us all from Satan’s power when we have gone astray.” Yes, Satan is real and relentless, but ultimately ruined—precisely because Jesus came. In fact, on that first Christmas, Jesus began undoing what Satan did a long time ago: enticing the human race to walk away from God and his ways. The Lord’s great rescue effort began with a young Jewish virgin named Mary.

Gabriel gives the news of her mission from God in the famous “Annunciation” (Luke 1:26-38), a text loaded with insights about Mary, Mary’s Son, and Mary’s God. Moreover, it does not go unnoticed in Christian theology that Mary is a kind of new Eve. Indeed, the fall began through the false belief of one virgin (Gen 3:4-6), and the restoration began through the true belief of another virgin (Luke 1:38). Irenaeus (ca. 130-202 A.D.) wrote, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” In one sense, then, our salvation hinges on Mary’s obedient response to God’s initiative.

All true, but what emerges from the biblical portrait of Mary is also her ordinariness. She was a normal young girl from a no-account town in Galilee. What made her extraordinary was the fact that she was a true servant of the Lord, totally surrendered to doing God’s will. In this regard, she’s still a model for believers today. It has always been the case that God has a plan to change the world, and ordinary people can be a part of it. That’s why Paul said to ordinary believers in Rome, “God will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20). We don’t have to be extraordinary people to engage in serpent crushing. We just have to be available to God.

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He Is Coming, Part 3: “Be Vibrant” (Luke 1:39-56)

Mary’s famous Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) reveals that the young Jewish girl who gave birth to the Messiah knew her Bible well. She weaves together at least 30 echoes, allusions, and citations from the Old Testament into her composition. The resulting scriptural tapestry bears a striking resemblance to the prayer of Hannah, a woman who was barren, yet God miraculously gave a son—the Prophet Samuel—whom she dedicated to the Lord. But it’s more than just Hannah’s prayer that stands behind the Magnificat; it’s myriad other references to the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, too. Her song is saturated and marinated in Scripture. It’s a musical medley that we might consider in our day something akin to a biblical mashup.
 
Mary likely composed the piece in her head on the 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Judea, singing it to Elizabeth upon her arrival. She had several days to think about it, and now she cuts loose. It’s also likely that these words became a lullaby sung to Jesus in utero and postpartum. If so, Jesus had sacred words ingrained in him from the very beginning of his earthly life. It’s no wonder, then, that he quotes the Psalms more than once from his cross. It’s even possible he sang those words to the extent he was able—almost like a duet across the years with his mother, who’s standing there at the horrible spectacle of Calvary. He sings back to her now the words she sang to him from infancy. Both their lives are bookended by the Word of God.
 
Some rabbis in Mary’s day said, “Keep the Torah far away from women; they will corrupt it to go near it. If they so much as touch the scroll, you must burn it.” One can be glad Mary and her family didn’t adhere to such a foolish tradition, for Mary’s burst of praise becomes part of sacred Scripture itself—God’s revelation to the world. And Elizabeth is not her only audience; we, are too. In this passage, Mary is “rightly dividing the word of truth” from the Old Testament, pulling it together and describing for us how God is bringing the Messiah into the world, and what he will do when he comes. She teaches us the Scriptures—anticipating the promise in Acts 2:17: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy [i.e., speak forth the Word of God].” Mary leads the way on this declaration. Indeed, she’s an extraordinary reminder that a spiritually vibrant life is marked by Scripture, praise, and humility. While certain traditions overly exalt Mary, others greatly under appreciate her. Neither extreme is warranted. She is truly a model for the ages.

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He Is Coming, Part 2: “Be Repentant” (Mark 1:1-8)

Prior to the writing of the New Testament, the Greek word for “gospel” (euangelion) referred to “the good news announcement” of a military victory on the battlefield, a legal victory in a court of law, or the birth and/or ascension of a new king to the throne. One ancient inscription refers to the birth of Caesar Augustus as “the beginning of the gospel,” the exact phrase Mark uses in the opening line of his account of the life of Christ. Mark actually “hijacks” that reference to Caesar and reassigns it to Jesus Christ, the Son of God who has won the ultimate battle over evil, sin, and death, and rules now from his throne in heaven. What unlocks the “good news” in a person’s life is faith and repentance—making a turn from going in one direction in order to go the other way and follow Jesus. 

Ultimately, “repentance” is a positive word, as God graciously allows his people to leave their path of destruction and avoid disastrous consequences. God’s offer of repentance means there is still hope. It means God hasn’t given up on us. It means there’s still a possibility to participate in his kingdom renewal efforts here on earth. As John Climacus has said, “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair. It is not despondency but eager expectation. . . . To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.”

The difficulty for us is letting go of trying to be the boss of our own lives and letting Jesus call the shots instead. A well-known bumper sticker in our day says, “God is my co-pilot,” but the truth is: If God is your co-pilot, switch seats. He wants to be the pilot of our lives. Yes, God sees us as we are and loves us as we are, but by his grace, he does not leave us where we are. Indeed, he is ever ordering our lives in such a way that we can learn to make him our highest treasure.

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He Is Coming, Part 1: “Be Ready” (Mark 13:24-37)

People don’t usually have too much trouble with the biblical description of Jesus’ first coming. The story is largely soft, gentle, pleasant, and disarming. There’s a star in the east, a gaggle of shepherds, and a baby in a manger, asleep on the hay. It doesn’t look like very much, nor does it seem to threaten anyone (except, perhaps, King Herod). People tend to have a lot more trouble with the biblical description of Jesus’ second coming because it’s exactly the opposite of the first. Instead of a star in the sky, we have stars falling out of the sky. Instead of local ruddy shepherds, we have majestic angels and saints from all over the globe. Moreover, Jesus is not a harmless little baby anymore, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Instead, he’s the returning victorious king wrapped in clouds of glory, functioning now as the Judge of all the earth. It’s a cosmic and cataclysmic scene, and everyone will recognize his lordship when it happens.

Exactly when will all this take place? Jesus gives the illustration of a budding fig tree (Mark 13:28-31) and the illustration of alert servants (Mark 13:32-37) to remind his followers, “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33). So, the doctrine of the Second Coming is not given as a prophetic jigsaw puzzle to be solved, but as a motivation for practical faith and godly living until the consummation of history. All told, the passage reminds us that Jesus is coming again, so be ready for his appearing. Knowing the precise timing of his return could lead some to procrastinate their faithfulness—to put it on hold, or to suggest that loyalty to him is no big deal. “Not so,” says Jesus. “I’m coming again, and you don’t know when, so be watchful. Be ready for my return.” Ultimately, the doctrine of the Second Coming is a source of great hope and comfort for believers because it portrays the heart of the gospel: the Judge who will judge us has already received our judgment at the cross.

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‘Christ the King Sunday’ Sermon: Crown Him with Many Crowns

In ancient Israel, potential kings took part in a three-stage pattern of accession before they finally and permanently took the throne. These three stages included: (1) an official declaration of recognition, often involving an anointing by a prophet; (2) a demonstration of worthiness, often involving the courageous vanquishing of an enemy; and (3) a public coronation, often involving the reading or singing of an enthronement psalm. Coronations were elaborate affairs, typically consisting of much pageantry and ceremonial flourishes, such as a special procession, meal, crown, armband, sash, scepter, kiss, and second anointing. Additionally, there was a special elevated platform and the public mounting of the throne for the first time. Many of these elements are seen throughout the period of the Old Testament kings.

In their presentation of Jesus Christ as king, the Gospel writers mimic this three-fold pattern. Jesus is anointed at his baptism by the Holy Spirit with his heavenly Father’s public approval. He then prevails over the ultimate enemy, Satan, by triumphing over his temptations in the wilderness. He then is enthroned on his cross, quoting Psalm 22 and mirroring the flourishes of the coronation ceremony, only in surprising and gruesome ways. That’s because Jesus is a different kind of king, and he brings a different kind of kingdom. As Paul wrote, “The kingdom of God…is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Indeed, Jesus is the king of the universe whose realm is the human heart. That’s why the subjects in his kingdom seek to align their lives with his will and ways. 

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The Blood Covenant, Part 8: Remember! (1 Cor 11:23-26)

At the heart of the church’s worship life is a meal. Not a song. Not a hymn. Not a shout. Not a dance. Not even a sermon, but a meal. At the command of Christ, believers gather around a table, give thanks, eat a piece of bread, and take a sip of wine. In doing so, we remember what is central to the Jesus Story and our place in that story. Specifically, we remember what Jesus did in the past (i.e., his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension), and we remember what he will do in the future (i.e., his return in power and great glory and restoration of all things). We also experience in the present moment his Real Presence in a unique way (i.e., the bread, which is his body, and the wine, which is his blood.) Indeed, Holy Communion is Jesus sharing himself with us.

The practice is rooted in the ancient custom of covenant making, where representative heads would exchange bread and wine at the end of their public ceremony. (The bride-and-groom cake exchange and interlinking-arms toast at contemporary wedding receptions go all the way back to the ancient covenant ceremony.) In this final message of the series, we consider some reasons Jesus asked us to remember him in this way. First, the God of the Bible is the God who feeds his people. (Like Father, like Son!) Second, eating is the universal language of fellowship and companionship. Third, bread and wine are the universal symbols of a covenant established. And fourth, the symbols given to us by God are windows into eternity. They reveal his gracious heart to all who commune by faith.

In the days when the British Red Coats were warring with the Scots, no one was allowed to go outside early in the morning. The Brits knew that underground churches were meeting illegally, and those who were out walking at dawn probably were making their way to a daily service of Holy Communion. One day a Scottish teenage girl was stopped by a Red Coat. “Where are you going?” he demanded. As a Christ follower, she didn’t want to lie, but she also didn’t want to expose her church. So, she staked everything on the theological ignorance of the soldiers. She replied, “My elder brother has died, and I’m going to the reading of his last will and testament. While there, I’ll be collecting my share in the inheritance.” Her elder brother, of course, was Jesus Christ. What she failed to mention was that her elder brother was now risen from the dead and serving as the “attorney” who would ensure she gets everything she has coming to her. Clearly, the young girl understood the covenant. We can, too, especially as revealed in the table of the Lord.

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The Blood Covenant, Part 7: The Final Exchange (1 Cor 15:50-57)

Human beings have a rendezvous with death. The Grim Reaper is coming for everyone, regardless of who they are, where they live, how much money they make, or what they believe. As one writer put it, if death were a preacher, “every tombstone is his pulpit, every newspaper prints his text, and someday every one of you will be his sermon.” That’s a creative way to say what Charles Dickens said bluntly a couple of centuries ago, “We are all fellow pilgrims to the grave.” It’s a cold fact of life, and no one likes to dwell on it. Thankfully, the followers of Christ have something glorious to look forward to despite the unavoidability of death. The reason for that hope is the theme of this series.

Covenant partners become functionally one—as symbolized in their exchange of weapons, outer garments, token possessions, names, blood, and places between the slaughtered animal sacrifice. What’s true of one covenant partner is true of the other. Jesus died, but he rose again. Therefore, those who are in covenant with him will die and rise again, too. When Jesus was raised, he got a new and glorified body. Therefore, those who are in covenant with him will get a new and glorified body, too. Indeed, the Body of Christ will get new bodies from Christ. It’s the final exchange of the New Covenant, and it will lead to everlasting joy, not to mention the final humiliation of death.

As such, Paul can taunt the Grim Reaper by saying, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). He can also celebrate with fellow believers, “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:55).

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The Blood Covenant, Part 6: Rescued and Released (Luke 1:67-75)

Fear is a universal sensation. Everyone experiences it at some point in their lives. Thankfully, it’s not all bad. Good fear protects us from danger and keeps us from hurting ourselves. It prevents a child from getting into a stranger’s car. It causes adults to slow down on slippery roads. It even keeps spouses from forgetting their wedding anniversary! But there’s also a bad kind of fear that we have to face in life. Bad fear paralyzes us from doing what we should be doing, and it provokes us into doing what we shouldn’t be doing. Because of sin, this kind of fear is deep within all of us. In fact, the first words out of Adam’s mouth in his fallen state were, “I…was…afraid” (Gen 3:10). From that point on, many people have gone through life like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Fear dominates their every move.

When the New Covenant dawns in Zechariah’s day, the priest praises God because the Lord had remembered “his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear” (Luke 1:67-75). Christmas happens, says Zechariah, because God made a promise a long time ago, and now he’s bringing it to pass. But it’s not just any promise; it’s a covenant promise—an oath he swore with uplifted hand to Father Abraham. One result of that covenant is that believers can now serve the Lord “without fear.” Quite significantly, all the major characters in the Advent story are given the same angelic word: “Do not be afraid.” In this sermon, we look at the various kinds of fear they experienced, and how the God of covenant love addresses each one:

  • Zechariah—the fear of disappointment:
    “It’s hard to hope again!” (Luke 1:5-25) 
  • Mary—the fear of inadequacy:
    “This is too big for me!” (Luke 1:26-38) 
  • Joseph—the fear of rejection:
    “What will people think?” (Matthew 1:18-25) 
  • Shepherds—the fear of the unknown:
    “This doesn’t make sense!” (Luke 2:1-20) 

The message for believers today is this: The more we trust God with our fears, the more we will participate in his plan to recapture the world. God says to his people, “You don’t have to be afraid anymore. I know you live in a scary world. I know you’ll have to face difficult situations, but you are not alone. I am with you. Because of covenant, we’re in this together. So, fear not!” That’s a good word for God’s people today, too. 

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The Blood Covenant, Part 5: After Darkness, Light (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

The heartbreak of the Old Testament is that Israel kept breaking covenant with God. They violated its terms and dishonored their King. We’re not talking here about common struggles of the flesh, such as losing your temper, speaking an unkind word, or being guilty of greed, gluttony, etc. “We all stumble in many ways,” said James (James 3:2). No, these were persistent violations of the first two commandments (Exodus 20:3-6). The nation kept turning to foreign gods and bowing down to lifeless idols. It was a disloyalty to God that amounted to the worst kind of spiritual treason possible. They even engaged in child sacrifice, which deeply distressed the prophets (Jeremiah 32:35). The covenant eventually collapsed (Jeremiah 3:8), and judgment came in the form of a 70-year exile to Babylon.

But the prophets also preached a message of hope alongside the doom and gloom. Indeed, there were sparks of light piercing the gathering storm clouds. “With God,” they said, “there’s hope beyond the devastation—a future beyond judgment.” God would seek out a remnant who would be loyal to him (Isaiah 54:7), giving them a new and internal work of the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-27). He would give them a new joy in worship (Isaiah 35:10). And he would eventually cut the “new covenant” for them, saying, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Why? Because God’s lovingkindness is far greater than the worst human rebellion. 

Still, the new covenant would cost Jesus his life. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” he said, “which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20). On the cross, Jesus endured the curse of broken covenant so that we could be redeemed (Galatians 3:13). His resurrection from the dead and pouring out of the Holy Spirit shows that the new covenant is now in effect.

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Exchange! Braided hair from two girls illustrating the underlying concept of covenant.

The Blood Covenant, Part 4: The Battle Belongs to the Lord (2 Chronicles 20:1-30)

Sometimes the questions of life are so hard, we need divine guidance to answer them. Should I go to college or enter the work force right out of high school? Should I stay in my current job or look for another? Should I move to a new location? If so, where? Should I stay in this toxic relationship? Should I put my declining loved one in a care facility? Should I take my family member off of life support? Indeed, life can sometimes feel like one crisis decision after another, and our own wisdom is not always sufficient to make the call.

In 2 Chronicles 20, King Jehoshaphat faces a major crisis. He’s being attacked by a triple alliance of nations, and he’s not ready for it. In fact, he’s alarmed when he first gets the intelligence report. He doesn’t know what to do, but he knows he’s in covenant with Yahweh—the God of Israel. So, if he’s being attacked, God is being attacked, too. Consequently, the king calls on his covenant partner for help: “O Lord…we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:6, 12b). In response, God gives him strange instructions, reminding him that the battle belongs to the Lord. 

The same is true today. When you’re afraid and don’t know what to do, pray to the God who does. God knows all about the scary situations we face and and the difficult decisions in front of us, so he puts divine resources at our disposal. When we trust him fully, we may—like Jehoshaphat—find ourselves praising our way to victory.

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The Blood Covenant, Part 3: Open Your Mouth Wide (Psalm 81:1-10)

The descendants of Abraham found themselves enslaved down in Egypt building the treasure cities of Pharaoh. Because they were in covenant with God, however, it was as if God himself was enslaved, too. In fact, part of Psalm 81 gives us a portrait of God walking through Egypt, as if he were right there on the scene where his people were being mistreated. God says, in effect, “I was there, and I saw you with a burden on your back. I saw you with a basket of bricks in your hands. I heard you struggling with the language of the Egyptians.” And as Israel’s covenant partner, God obligated himself to act on their behalf. That’s why his message to the obstinate Pharaoh was, “Let my people go!” 

God’s message to his own people was, “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it” (Psalm 81:10). That’s an illustration from the hedgerows—a picture of baby birds being fed by mother bird in the nest. A baby bird is nothing but a big open beak with a straggly bit of flesh attached to it. It’s the picture of absolute dependence and expectancy. God was reminding his people to trust him; to depend on him—to rely on him, even when life was difficult. Or, in the words of Jesus: “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). This spiritual dynamic is still true today. God is the ultimate covenant partner on whom we can always depend. We just need to learn how to open our mouths wide.

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“Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” (Psalm 81:10)

The Blood Covenant, Part 2: Is There Anyone Still Left? (1 Samuel 18:1-4; 2 Samuel 9:1-10)

David and Jonathan enter into a parity covenant, exchanging robes and weapons to signify their bond of loyalty to each other. The covenant they cut includes Jonathan’s young son Mephibosheth, whom David seeks out to bless even after Jonathan dies. Thereafter, Mephibosheth is invited to eat at the king’s table forever, unworthy though he may be. David shows Mephibosheth hesed (loving-kindness) because of his covenant with Jonathan, who served as his son’s covenant representative head.

This historical episode illustrates well the concept of representation. As Jonathan was Mephibosheth’s covenant representative head, so Jesus is the covenant representative head of the entire human race. Moreover, like David looking for Mephibosheth, God is searching for us, wanting to lavish upon us all the riches and blessings that come from being in covenant with him through Christ. He invites us to eat at the King’s table forever, unworthy though we may be. God’s hesed (lovingkindness) now flows to all who acknowledge Jesus by faith as their covenant representative head.

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The Blood Covenant, Part 1: The Bond in Blood (Genesis 15:1-21)

The word “covenant” is used over 300 times in the Bible. In the ancient world, covenant making (or “cutting”) was a social arrangement of convenience or necessity, obligating two parties to show hesed one to another (i.e., mercy, kindness, loving-kindness, or covenant loyalty). At its heart, a covenant was a bond in blood; the establishment of a binding, legal relationship with no exit clause. Covenant partners died to their rights to independent living, becoming functionally one in the process.

The shock of the Bible is that God himself has entered into covenant with the human race! He swore on oath with uplifted hand to keep his word, even upon pain of death. It all started with a man by the name of “Abram.” God promised that one day someone would come through Abram’s line who would bless the whole world (Genesis 12:3), an ultimate reference to the Messiah. The bigger shock of the Bible is that to establish a covenant with humanity, God placed a death sentence on himself. What kind of God is willing to die for his people? The one whose Son wound up on a cross, where the New Covenant was cut.

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