The Great Man's Last Days (1)

The Great Man's Last Days (1)
2 Timothy 4 : 1 - 8

Saul was born in Tarsus around 5 BC. He was born an Israelite and a Roman citizen. Defending himself against a mob in Jerusalem in 57 AD he said, ‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today’ (Acts 22 : 3). Cilicia is located near the modern-day province of Mersin, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. It can be visited and is a busy commercial and industrial city. In Acts 5 : 34–39 we read that Gamaliel intervened on behalf of the Apostles of Jesus when they had been seized and brought to the Sanhedrin. He said, ‘Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God’ (Acts 5 : 38-39). Gamaliel was a reasonable man. What might he have thought of his erstwhile pupil Saul who was present at the stoning of Stephen in 32 AD, of his persecutions of Christians and of his Christian conversion and missionary enterprises? It is thought that Gamaliel died in 52 AD some three years after the Council of Jerusalem and Paul’s confrontation with Peter about Christian freedom as recorded in Acts 15.

As the apostle of the risen Jesus Christ, Paul travelled on major missionary journeys. Acts 16 tells us that Paul met Timothy at Lystra in central Turkey, possibly in 50 AD. Timothy was already a Christian. His mother was a Jewish convert to Christianity ‘but’ the text says ominously, his father was a Greek and little doubt not a Christian. The members of the Christian congregations at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of Timothy and so Paul enlisted him as a fellow worker. Paul returned to Jerusalem in 57 AD and was arrested. His Roman citizenship saved him but he was kept in custody by the Romans for his own safety. In 59 AD having appealed to Caesar rather than be freed to be killed by Jewish zealots and also to fulfil the word of the Risen Jesus recorded in Acts 23 : 11 ‘The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome’, Paul set out for Rome. After shipwreck on Malta Paul arrived there in 60 AD. He lived under house arrest. Acts 28 : 30-31 tells us ‘For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!’ It is thought that Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon and no doubt much more during this time. It appears that Paul’s case was dropped perhaps because no Jews came to prosecute their case against him and he was set free. Paul had asked to meet the members of Rome’s Jewish synagogue and they said to him. ‘We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of our people who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you. But we want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect’ (Acts 28 : 21,22).

It is thought that from 62 - 66 AD Paul continued the work of an apostle and evangelist. His letters to Timothy and Titus help us to understand somewhat. He travelled east and visited Greece, Crete and Asia. Luke offers us no record of these journeys. Luke himself is thought to have lived on until the age of 84 years, dying in Boeotia in central Greece. Paul was arrested for a second time and 2 Timothy 4 describes his trial and state of mind on being tried, convicted as a Christian and sentenced to death, which in his case would be by beheading. 2 Timothy 1 : 8 reads ‘So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God’. And 2 Timothy 2 : 8, 9 reads ‘Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal’. He should not have been chained as he was a Roman citizen. But this was after the great fire of Rome and during the Emperor Nero’s sadistic persecution of Christians.

V1 ‘In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge’. This is a solemn invocation. Paul lives his life in the presence of God. He is conscious of doing so. Martin Luther thought all humanity lived life ‘coram deo’, ‘before God’, ‘in the sight of God’. The sensor in the human condition for him was conscience. Does your conscience convict you of condemnation or of salvation? For Paul there was a correlation between his direct call to be an apostle, his faithfulness in fulfilling his calling and living in the direct presence of God : ‘and of Christ Jesus’ – this means ‘and of our Messiah Jesus’. Since Paul writes about the Holy Spirit, it is clear that he was Trinitarian. There is no ambiguity. 1 Thessalonians 1 : 4 - 6 for example reads, ‘For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit’ : ‘who will judge the living and the dead’ – Judaism held strongly to the judgement of God. Jesus did too. ‘But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken’ (Matthew 12 : 36). But Jesus was more nuanced also. ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you’ (Matthew 7 : 1 - 2). ‘Then neither do I condemn you’, Jesus declared to the woman taken in adultery. 'Go now and leave your life of sin’ John 8 : 11).

The overarching Gospel message unique to Christianity is summarised in Jesus’ words. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ (John 3 : 16 - 17). The offer is universal and for all time. The response is conditional on ‘whoever’ believes in and recognises Jesus. It is obvious that western culture has ceased to believe in and recognise Jesus. We in the Christian Churches of the west appear to be lukewarm in our faith and unconvinced of the certainties that St Paul enjoyed. How can it be called ‘fundamentalism’ to uphold Paul’s experience and knowledge as definitive? He was at the cutting edge of Christianity’s explosion in the ancient world. The odds he faced were enormous. His life, teaching and example have informed the whole world for millennia. How is it that those in the midst of Christian decline can devalue the great apostle of Christian expansion? : ‘and in view of his appearing and his kingdom’; Paul lives within Christ’s appearing and kingdom. But he also looks forward to the possible second coming of Jesus. He gives the most dramatic context to Timothy’s ministry – that Jesus may appear at any time. For this reason Timothy must be resolute and faithful. Jesus did not do so in the second sense but in the first sense of living before God and in the kingdom, Jesus was present to Timothy and to those who have sought out and followed Jesus and to us today who do the same. We live within the second coming of Jesus when we accept him into our lives and our hearts and minds. Paul was not one of those false teachers who urged congregations to sell their possessions and sit on top of hills waiting for Jesus to appear. He got on with the job and he tasked Timothy to do the same. ‘I charge you’. “The Greek word ‘diamartyromai’ has legal connections and can mean ‘testify under oath’ in a court of law, or to ‘adjure’ a witness to do so. It is a bit like the oath ‘Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God’. Church of Scotland ministers are given a similar charge at their ordinations and inductions. The Moderator of Presbytery may begin this charge saying, ‘I now charge you in the name of the Church to seek to be worthy of your calling. With a humble spirit and grateful heart, work for the building up of the body of Christ. Together with the people to whom you are bound, share in the ministry of the reconciliation of all things in Christ Jesus. Care for the people in your charge…..’. The congregation is also given a charge to uphold and respond to and support this new ministry.

V2 ‘Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction’. Paul was a talker. Luke tells us about an incident in Acts 20 : 7 - 12 which confirms his verbosity. ‘On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted’. Church of Scotland people become restless or go to sleep after 20 minutes of a sermon. Timothy was to preach the word of God, that is, the Gospel. He was not to waffle. He was not to talk about himself. He was not to offer discourses on events and politics, societies and nations. The Church of Scotland preaches in this latter way; it does not preach the word. It offers a social Gospel based on the second commandment to love our neighbours. That is worthy but it is not the empowering challenging word of salvation to humanity. That is what Paul requires Timothy to preach. Paul liked an argument, he was disputatious, an intellectual, comfortable with argument. After he had preached he customarily took questions and entered into hours of discussions based on the Hebrew Scriptures. If it was an evening sermon, no-one went home in the dark. The Greek root ‘kerusso’ means to proclaim. This was the role of a messenger. Paul’s preaching was positive. It was Good News. It was not denunciatory as was some Scottish preaching over the centuries after The Reformation.

‘Be prepared’ is the motto of The Scouts. Their founder Lt Gen Robert Baden-Powell explained the motto which bore his own surname initials. It means being in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty. It involves Be Prepared in Mind to be obedient to every order, and also by having thought out beforehand any accident or situation that might occur, so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment, and are willing to do it and Being Prepared in Body by making yourself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it. Christian preparedness is not so martial or so much about being in control. It is about being open to the leading of the risen Jesus through the Holy Spirit. It is about being in a good place with God. It is about not being caught short in sin. It is not about self-sufficiency though : ‘in season and out of season’ means preaching in helpful and in discouraging circumstances, both when visible fruit is harvested and when it appears not to be. Paul knew this well. He was successful in church planting but suffered harassment and opposition at every turn. Indifference is our problem today. Cultural wars, politically correct thinking and woke agendas have suffocated Christian preaching throughout the land. It is very much ‘out of season’ in this country. We are left to preach faithfully within congregational worship though we have the helpful opportunities of broadcasting through the internet.

Paul continues ‘correct, rebuke and encourage’. Sir Alex Ferguson is regarded as one of the greatest ever football managers. He was known to give some players ‘the hair dryer treatment’. He stood so close to a player when giving him a bawling out for laziness that his warm breath played out on his hair. Paul does not advocate this behaviour for Timothy. Neither does he advise nicey-nicey inoffensive preaching. Listening to preaching is about the only correcting influence left in adult life. East Enders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale are morality and immorality tales, reflections of current values. Christian preaching has something to offer soul-empty lives; salvation in Jesus Christ, a better way to live, redemption, forgiveness of sins and the love of God. Paul never neglects to ‘encourage’. A good parent will correct a child but not discourage the child. As Paul wrote elsewhere ‘I will show you a better way’: ‘with great patience and careful instruction’. There was a very good Minister who followed Tom Allan at St George’s Tron Church in Glasgow many years ago. He was George Duncan. After the evening service one Sunday a young man came round to his vestry to pour out his soul. George Duncan listened patiently. An hour later the young man thanked the minister for spending time with him. George Duncan blessed the young man and added ‘I need to be going now, I have a plane to catch for London in half an hour’. The young man was overwhelmed with George Duncan’s patience and kindness to him. Paul was a Pharisee used to working out the minutiae of the Jewish law. The instruction Paul advocates would be doctrinal about Jesus’ purpose, death and resurrection and it would be ethical about how to live as a Christian. In the Church of Scotland this is described disparagingly as conservative evangelicalism, suited and booted as opposed to radical evangelicalism such as American the Rev Arthur Blessitt’s trailing a large cross on a wheel as his Christian witness while walking across the whole world in 2009, all 38,102 miles, enough to hold the Guinness Book’s world record.

V3 'For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear'. The Church of Scotland has departed from its foundation doctrines. The Bible is for all time. Reformation doctrine is culturally conditioned. The Pope may have been thought to be the Antichrist in 1648 when the Westminster Confession of Faith was formulated, perhaps due to the terrible persecution of Protestants over the previous 100 years. No-one thinks that the Pope today is the Antichrist. He may be mistaken in doctrine and practice presiding over an ecclesiastical edifice which does not clearly represent Jesus Christ but most Christians regard the Pope as the human face of world Christianity. The monolithic Church of Rome is subject to protestations for change and reform. Claims of exclusivity, infallibility and moral certitude are challenged by campaigns within the Church for women’s ordination, clergy marriage and liberalisation of rules on divorce, homosexuality and abortion. Protestantism answered some of these issues centuries ago. But its present diffusion is the consequence. Relationship experts are employed by the BBC and other media organisations to discuss family life. They are not ordained. They just share opinions often based on their own personal history of relationship failures. They do not point beyond themselves to One greater, to no Saviour or Eternal Guide. Without coherence human society fragments. There is no more obvious example than western society in the early 21st century. There used to be a person called ‘a sermon taster’. He or she would pitch up a different churches to listen to the sermon without taking it too seriously or making any response or commitment. I remember sitting behind someone at the Christmas Eve Watchnight Service in Whitekirk Church, East Lothian. I overheard a rather posh voice saying ‘One tends to go to Church at Christmas time’. Paul describes ‘itching ears’. It was said of the Athenians at the time of Paul’s visit recorded in Acts 17 : 21 that ‘All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas’. Every TV chat show, most opinion newspaper articles and endless social media chat are about new ideas, new words, new fashions, new lifestyles, new fads, new objects of desire. There is no overall consistency or coherence. It is all a Rabelaisian polyglot of human impressions and presentations. Sunday worship in churches is about the only sane practice left.

V4 'They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths'. Many people live by myth and fable. Some regard myth as not necessarily completely untrue. Rather it is held to be a means of communicating deeper truth by narrative and drama. The moral of the story is… Shakespeare’s plays are mythological though some are based on historical events. Works of fiction continue to proliferate even in our scientifically informed society. People love a good yarn. The most popular films include science fiction such as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Star Wars, 2001 : A Space Odyssey, Aliens, Alien and many such like. Star Trekkies hold conventions celebrating their favourite genre. Soap operas are daily fixes for millions. ‘Fake News’ misinforms politics the world over. The human capacity for imaginative alternative explanations for existence and everything in it is boundless. The ancient Greeks had their pantheon of gods and goddesses. So too the Romans. Judaism was reasonable and rational in comparison and Christianity was understandable and applicable from its outset. The late 20th century and early 21st century new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens have excoriated religion, denying the various truth claims of Christianity. Christianity has had its enemies within too. ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’ was a book of essays by theologians published in 1977 which expressed doubt and scepticism about the very central tenets of Christianity. Bishop John Robinson had published ‘Honest to God’ in 1963 criticising Christian theology and other similar publications have appeared over the years since. With friends like these…. Newspapers, television, radio and especially the world wide web social media function on the basis of falsehoods. But so do governments. Public relations is an art and skill in deception. Advertising is mythological. Russian disinformation is a present danger to western interests. Children are introduced in early life to stories. They are told about Santa Claus. And they are told about Jesus. Everyday gossip, retold misunderstandings, mis-tellings, misrepresentations, fabrications, embellishments and exaggerations constitute the mythology of everyday life. Miscommunications are facts of warfare. Historical details are often corrected by longer time perspectives. Even scientific facts are later contradicted. We humans struggle to say anything that is actually true. Someone once said ‘What I am on my knees before God is who I truly am’ (or words to that effect). In Paul’s time there were differing interpretations of Jesus. Was he a demi-god? Had he really died? Was he an avatar? Did he really rise from the dead? That what we know as Christian orthodoxy survived is a providential miracle. In 19th century America, alternatives such as Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, 7th Day Adventism and other offshoots proliferated. Simplicity is to be treasured in our world of luxuriant human imagination. Some would argue that the idea that our world and our humanity came about by chance is mythological. Scientific possibility and probability are treated as facts even though not proven beyond imagined estimates and projected calculations. The theory of evolution by natural selection might also be regarded as a myth. Jesus dying on his cross is a timeless contradiction. He lost the evolutionary battle for survival, left no issue and yet is known and loved by 2.3 billion of humanity.

V5 ‘But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry’. Paul advocated sense, sensibility and stability for Timothy. ‘Keep the heid!’ The opposite of this was ‘heid banger’ and ‘heid the ba’ to describe an unstable person. Christian leadership for Paul had to be from a secure base in the psychology of the minister. Trust is not easily won and easily squandered. Being a first generation Christian leader was not a luxury lifestyle. That came centuries later for the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. The gross extravagances of the mediaeval church led in part to The Reformation. Even in Scotland in my own lifetime, I have seen a Roman Catholic bishop dine off silver service in the privacy of his home. Hardship was not just economic, however, it included the risk factor in being a Christian at that time in the Roman Empire. Paul accepts that opposition and persecution come with the territory. Tony Blair used to say that politicians complaining about the media is like fish complaining about the sea. The work of an evangelist is distinct – it is to win souls for Jesus Christ – it is to lead people to Jesus. Not everyone is called or enabled to be an evangelist. Paul himself recognised the diversity of gifts of the Holy Spirit. ‘We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us' (Romans 12 : 6). That said, Christianity is caught rather than taught. If we all spoke more definitely about our relationship with Jesus, His Name would be better known, more respected and honoured. We in turn would be more motivated, inspired and empowered in Christian witness and testimony. Timothy is not to sit back and administer his congregation. He is to lead from the front in evangelism. This, in addition to all the tasks and duties of a minister of a Christian congregation. Pastoral care, organising and distributing food to needy members, visiting homes, baptising and conducting Holy Communion and all else. These and more still occupy the lives and times of Christian ministers throughout the world in the early 21st century.

V6 'For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near'. Jacob poured out a drink offering to God at Bethel (Genesis 35 : 14) and drink offerings were part of Jewish sacrifices. One of the most famous drink offerings recorded in the Old Testament is found at 2 Samuel 23 : 15 – 17. King ‘David longed for water and said, “Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!” So the three mighty warriors broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the Lord. “Far be it from me, Lord, to do this!” he said. “Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?” And David would not drink it’. Roman custom also required wine to be poured out to the gods at the end of meals. It is Paul’s lifeblood, his spiritual strength, his vitality that is being poured out. Paul is exhausted. He knows that he has nothing more to give, nothing more to do except die a martyr’s death. He has given his all, 110% as the footballers say. For Jesus Christ. Commentators think this language reflects Paul already having received his death sentence. He may have been thinking of his blood falling to the ground in execution. And Paul’s departure from this life would be soon, days perhaps, even hours. There used to be joke about nursing homes being the departure lounges of life. Late elderly life turns us from the things of this world to the things of eternal life. It is a natural process and a kindly reorientation. Paul's life ended unnaturally though, beheaded as a Christian.

V7 'I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith'. Paul was at peace with himself and with God. He had fulfilled his life’s purpose. He had not wavered, backslid or failed. He had a sense of accomplishment and of fidelity. But Paul never knew the extent of the influence his life would have in later human history. He liked the image of the Roman gladiator and of the Olympic athlete. He was the spiritual equivalent of these for Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 9 : 24 – 27 we read Paul’s earlier description. ‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize’. Paul’s rigorous keeping of the Law as a Pharisee translated into Christian asceticism. For centuries Christian devotees have sought to gain control over their physical passions and feelings by much prayer and self-denial. Eccentric and extreme celibates, monks and nuns endured deprivation of natural thoughts and inclinations in order to relate the better to God. There were hermits and anchorites (female hermits) throughout the middle ages. A few remain. A woman visited me at the Chaplaincy of Edinburgh University and told me ‘I am an urban contemplative’. Protestant Christianity eschewed this ‘salvation by works’ mentality. Martin Luther left the monastery. His wife Katharina left the nunnery. Today extremes of behaviour and commitment are seen among some climate activists and the soft, comfortable life of Church members pales in comparison to others’ dedication to lesser things than the love and worship of God.

V8 'Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing'. Paul here refers to the athlete’s victor’s crown not to the royal crown of monarchs. This is like the crown of olive leaves that soon withered and died. Paul’s spiritual crown was eternal and would never perish. He had advised Timothy earlier, ‘I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day...What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us’ (2 Timothy 1 : 12b - 14). Paul had written to the Christians in Ephesus along similar lines. ‘When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory’ (Ephesians 1 : 14). It was the Holy Spirit within Paul Who reassured him of his salvation. As a Church of Scotland minister I was often struck by how many Church members had little or no assurance of salvation. Of course, throughout their decades of attendance they had never talked about such assurance. No one had asked them, helped them, enlightened them, encouraged them. Neither had they much sought such assurance, content with churchgoing rather than Christian conversion. The hymn ‘Holy, holy, holy’ has the line ‘All the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea’, reflecting Revelation 4 : 10 – 11, ‘the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created    and have their being”’. Paul writes that his is a crown of righteousness to be awarded by the righteous Judge. The Greek word δικαιοσύνης means righteousness, justice and keeping the law. In modern Greek it refers to the legal system of Greece. God, for Paul, is the uncorrupted, unbiased Judge. Paul was born a Jew and he intended to die a Jew, albeit a Christian Jew. He had kept God’s rules until his last breath. He includes other faithful Christians who have been hoping and praying for the return of Jesus. That was the evidence of final piety in the early Church. Belief in Jesus’ Second Coming is a litmus test for genuine Christianity in evangelical circles of Protestant Christianity. To be actively committed, focussed and orientated towards the expectation of Jesus’ return and to be looking out for signs that would precede it, is for some, the fullest Christian witness. Paul and the early Christians were entitled to think that way, even if it did not happen as they understood. We today have no excuses. Unlike us, persecuted Christians languishing in work camps and prisons in North Korea, China, Pakistan and elsewhere have nothing else to look forward to. But Jesus’ Second Coming is always happening. The Christmas Carol ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ was written by Phillips Brooks. He wrote to a friend, ‘I cannot tell you how personal this grows to me. He is here. He knows me and I know him. It is no figure of speech. It is the realest thing in the world, and every day make it realer. And one wonders with delight what it will grow to as the years go on’.

‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is giv’n! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heav’n. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in’.

Robert Anderson 2017

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