Hi everyone. Welcome to Trinity Baptist Church. If you’re new here or this is your first time, I’d especially like to welcome you and tell you that we are glad that you’re here. I’d like to begin the sermon tonight by asking all of you a question: does thinking about God bring you joy? I know that all of us find joy in many things: in our friends, in our family, in art and music. But what about God? Does he bring you joy? This question might surprise some of you. And yet, so often in the Bible, we see that those who have entered into a relationship with God are filled to overflowing with deep reservoirs of joy. So if you find the idea that God could bring you joy surprising or even mildly offensive, I’m very glad you’re here. Tonight’s passage is going to show us that there two ways to approach God, one that will ultimately make us miserable and one that will bring us fullness of joy. And I hope, by the end of the sermon, all of us will be able to see with fresh eyes what it means to be a Christian, to put our trust in Jesus Christ, and to go on our way rejoicing. Please open up your Bibles to p. ? and read with me in Chapter 3 of Paul’s letter to the Philippians from verses 1 through 9.
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
Tonight, we’re continuing our series in the letter of Paul to the Philippians and as I said before, in this passage we touch on one of the major themes in the letter to the Philippians which is the theme of joy. If you look at the very first verse of our passage tonight, you’ll see that Paul begins by talking about joy: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!” And Paul’s statements in the following verses flow out of his statement in verse 1.
However, I’d like you to notice two very interesting things about this verse. The first thing we notice is that we are commanded to rejoice. In many places the Bible tells us that joy is one of the fruit of the Spirit and that, if you are a Christian, you will experience joy. And that is certainly true. However, in this passage we are not told that Christians are joyful. Instead, we are told that Christians ought to rejoice; we are commanded to rejoice. But second, and even more interesting, is the reason that Paul gives us. He tells us that we must rejoice because it is a safeguard. We must rejoice, says Paul, because joy will protect us and keep us from something that is very dangerous. So in the next few minutes, I’d like to ask four questions. First, what is the danger that Paul is warning us about? Second, why is it dangerous? Third, what is the alternative? And finally, I’d like to close by thinking about how joy is a safeguard. So what is the danger? Why is it dangerous? What is the alternative? And how is joy a safeguard?
But actually, circumcision cannot be the only issue that Paul is addressing because in v. 5-6 he goes on to talk about his ethnicity, his ancestry, his education, and even his morality. So this discussion cannot be merely about circumcision. Instead, the key concept on which Paul’s discussion hinges is not circumcision, but “confidence” or “trust” or “reliance”. He uses this word three times in verse 3-4. The real problem with those who insist on circumcision is that they are teaching people to put their “trust”, their “reliance”, their “confidence” in the flesh. In contrast, says Paul, Christians ought to “put no confidence in the flesh.” But what does it mean to put our “confidence in the flesh”? What is this danger that Paul is warning us about?
There are some technical terms people use to describe this danger: legalism, Pharisaism, or works-righteousness. But I’d like to use a much more familiar word, and one that I think is quite appropriate. The word that I’m going to use to describe the danger that Paul is warning us about is RELIGION. Watch out, says Paul, beware of the terrible danger of RELIGION. Are you surprised? I mean, after all, isn’t Christianity a religion? Well, yes and no. We’ll come back to that later. For now, let me ask you a question: what is religion? Why am I using that word? If I asked the average person on the street what is the basic message of all religions, I think I would get an answer like this: “The central message of every religion is to be a good, loving person. If you do this, God will take you to heaven.” In other words, if you died today and stood before God and He asked you why he should accept you into his presence for all eternity, you would say something like: “I’ve tried my hardest to be a good person, and to live a good life, and to follow your rules, and to love my neighbor as myself”. That, says Paul, is the essence of religion: placing your confidence “in the flesh”; that is, putting our confidence in ourselves, in our inherent goodness, in our ability to live good life that is pleasing to God. And that, says Paul, is a terrible danger.
And to illustrate this danger, Paul uses himself as an example. Paul, before he became a Christian, was once an extremely religious person, and in v. 3-6, he shows us exactly how religious he was. “If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more” says Paul. So let’s look at v. 4-6 and see the various ways in which we can put our confidence in ourselves. I think Paul gives us at least five.
First, says Paul, religion can be expressed by putting our confidence in ritual. The example that Paul gives in v.5 is circumcision: “circumcised on the eighth day”. God gave the Jewish people the sign of circumcision to show that God had rescued them and accepted them as his people. But in Paul’s time, many Jews believed that circumcision is what made them acceptable to God. And what about us? Do we fall into this same trap? Let me ask you a question: why are we here tonight? Do we think that by coming to church or by wearing a cross around our neck or by having a Jesus fish on our bumper that we deserve God’s blessing? All of these things are fine; but if we think that by doing these things, we can earn God’s blessing, then we are putting our confidence in the flesh.
How else can we be religious? Look at the end of verse 5 “of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews”. What is Paul talking about here? It is his ethnicity and his ancestry. He was a Jew, one of God’s chosen people, tracing his ancestry all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Surely, that should impress God? But no, says Paul, putting your confidence in your ethnicity is also a form of religion. What about us? Perhaps we know better than to rely on our ethnicity, but do we rely on our accomplishments. Do we bring our resume to God and say: “Look, God, I got a perfect score on my SAT. I have a degree from Yale. I am a highly skilled professional. Therefore, you owe me.” No, our ethnicity, our pedigree, our achievements are good things, but they will never make us acceptable to God.
What does Paul say next, and here I think he hits very close to home for some of us. In verse 5 he says “in regard to the law, a Pharisee.” What was a Pharisee? The Pharisees were one of the most strict and pious sects of Judaism in the first-century. They took God’s commandments extremely seriously, devoted themselves to study of the Bible, and were actually very orthodox in their beliefs. What does this mean for us? Let me ask a very pointed question: Do we think we are saved because of our doctrine? Do we think our knowledge of the Bible, or our theological training, or our perfect orthodoxy makes us acceptable before God? No, says, Paul, that is simply another way of being religious, of trusting in yourself and believing that your religious achievements make you acceptable to God.
What about sincerity? In verse 6 “as for zeal, persecuting the church.” “I am on fire for God,” we say. I have fully surrendered to Him. I live a life of fervency and piety and passion. I am utterly sincere in my devotion to Him. No, says Paul, you are going about it the wrong way. It is not your sincerity or your zeal that makes you right with God.
Finally, what about our morality, and this is the most telling of all. “as for legalistic righteousness,” says Paul, “faultless.” “I am not so foolish as to put my trust in ritual or ethnicity or dry doctrine”, we say, “But I am confident before God because I have kept his Law. God says that we must obey everything that he commands us to do, and I have. God has said: Thou shalt not steal, and I do not steal. Not once in my life have I every taken anything that wasn’t mine. God has said, Thou shalt not commit adultery and I have been faithful to my wife. I am a good, respectable, upstanding, tax-paying citizen. I have kept God’s law and he will accept me because of it.” But what does Paul say: “I thought like you once. I myself had reason for such confidence. I had it all. A Hebrew of Hebrew, a Pharisee of Pharisee, as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But now I put no confidence in any of it. Not in my observance of ritual, not in my ethnicity, not in my pure doctrine, not in my zeal, not even in my moral goodness.”
So we’ve seen the danger of which Paul is warning us: the danger of religion. And the essence of religion is putting our trust in the flesh, in our own pedigree, in our own ability, in our own moral goodness. And Paul is making the astonishing claim that we must not put our confidence in any of these things. But now the question we have to ask is: why? Why is religion so dangerous? So let’s ask that question next. And in response, let me give two reasons. Religion is dangerous, miserable, and ultimately hopeless because it ignores the greatness of God’s offer and the greatness of our sin.
Remember our definition of religion? Religion says: I obey God’s rules, therefore God blesses me. Essentially it treats a relationship with God as an employer-employee relationship. I give God a good record, I keep his rules, and in response, God accepts me and takes me to heaven. In other words, God is my employer, and I am his faithful employee. Now there is some truth to that analogy. Indeed, the Bible calls us to act as servants of God and to obey him. But the offer that God makes to us in Christ goes so far beyond mere servanthood. The Bible says that as many as received Jesus, as believed in his name, God gave the right to become sons of God. Sons! Not just servants. Not an employee. But a beloved son or daughter. Do you understand the difference?
Let me give you an illustration. Imagine that you work at Walgreens down on North Frontage and you are the best employee on your shift. In fact, you are the best employee in the whole store. In fact, you are the best employee in the entire company. And one day, the CEO of the entire company visits your store, comes to you, and shakes your hand, and thanks you for your service. That would be a great honor, wouldn’t it? But what if that evening, you went to the CEO’s home, opened his front door, walked into his living room, sat down on his lap and asked him to read you a story. How would he react? He would be shocked. Your behavior is utterly inappropriate. It doesn’t matter how good of an employee you are. It doesn’t matter how well you perform your duties. You have no right to that kind of intimacy. And yet his little two year- old daughter can climb into his lap and demand that same attention and he will be utterly delighted.”
Do you know what God is offering throughout the Bible? Paul tells us. He tells us that God is offering to us himself. Look at verse 8. Paul has lost all things and considers them rubbish in order to “gain Christ and be found in him.” God is giving HIMSELF freely to us. God so loved the world that he gave us his one and only son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. Can we earn such a gift? Can we deserve such a gift? I have a son named Adrian who just turned one. Can you imagine how I would feel if some very rich businessman came up to me one day and tried to buy him from me? “What’s wrong?” he asks, “I’m prepared to offer a lot of money? As much money as you want.” “Money!” I would cry, “I don’t want your money. He’s not for sale.” It is the same with God. He offers us his beloved son. We can have him freely, but he is not for sale.
And that is the first reason that religion is dangerous, miserable, and hopeless. If we are confident that our own merit or our own deeds can earn God’s favor, then we have not really considered the greatness of his offer. We cannot purchase it with our religious performance or our good works; it is so valuable, that it can only be received as a free gift.
But second, if we are confident in our own merit, then we have not really considered the greatness of our sin. At this point, some of you might thinking: “I don’t see what the big deal is. I believe that God is a God of love and goodness. We don’t need to earn his favor or his acceptance. God just accepts everyone.” With all due respect, it’s not that simple. Yes, God is a God of love. But that is precisely the problem. It is because God is a God of love and goodness that his acceptance of human beings is such a problem. Let me try to convince you that our sin really is serious and that our situation is very desperate.
Let’s consider what Jesus had to say about the life that God wants us to live. He said that all of God’s commandments can be summed up in two great commandments: “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love you neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live.” So let’s consider those two commandments and ask ourselves whether we have kept them. Do we love our neighbor as we love ourselves? Well, who is our neighbor. Jesus himself told us. He said that everyone you meet is your neighbor: your spouse, your child, your closest friend, a complete stranger, and even your enemies. You are to love all human beings just as you love yourself. Well, how do we treat our fellow human beings? Do we turn on the news and laugh at the latest celebrity meltdown? Do we enjoy watching their lives fall apart? You know how it feels to be mocked and laughed at; do you think it is any less wrong to mock them this because they are famous? What about our neighbors here in New Haven? The people living in poverty, the elderly living in nursing homes, the homeless sleeping on park benches? Are we loving them in tangible ways and pouring ourselves out for them? What about pornography? How would we feel if it were our own daughter or our own mother that were being exploited in this way? Are we loving our neighbor as ourselves? I can’t answer for you, but I know I am not. I am not even close to what God has called me to be. I break this commandment every day either through active jealousy or contempt or disdain for my neighbor or passive, callous indifference.
And yet, that is not even our biggest problem. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment was actually this: that we should love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Do we love God with our whole heart, that is with the very center of our being? Do all our decisions and all of the plans we make for our lives revolve around His purposes? Do we love God with our whole mind? Do we spend our time thinking about who God is and rejoicing in His wisdom and beauty? Do we love God with our whole soul? Do our emotions overflow with love and devotion to Him? And do we love God with all our strength? Do we wake up every morning resolved to pour every ounce of our energy into bringing pleasure to Him? I tell you we do not. We do not give God the honor, the esteem, the praise, or the adoration that He deserves. In fact, we spend most of our waking moments utterly ignoring God.
Think for a second, about what it feels like to be ignored by someone whom you love? How would you feel if your own son or daughter, whom you loved, came home from college one weekend and completely ignored you. They ate their meals, they watched television, they read books, but they acted as if you didn’t exist. Whenever you reached out to them to embrace them, they turned away. Think about the grief and misery it would bring you. And do you not see that this is how we treat God every day? We are supposed to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and we barely give him a passing thought. If someone were treating their spouse or son or daughter or mother or father this way, we would grab them by the shoulders and say “Wrong, wrong, wrong! What you are doing is terrible? How can you treat them this way after all they have done for you?” And yet this is what we do to God. The same God who feeds us, clothes us, gives us friends and family, and fills our hearts with joy. It is this God that we are ignoring.
But what about our good deeds? Don’t our good deeds count for something? But if we our honest with ourselves, we will quickly realize that even our best deeds are often done for selfish reasons. For instance, let’s say I serve meals at a soup kitchen on every Saturday. Why do I do it? Is it because I love the poor? Or is it also because I want to add it to my resume? Or because I want other people to notice how compassionate you are? Or because I want to be able to tell myself how compassionate I am and look down on those terrible uncompassionate people? Worst of all, what if I think that by doing good deeds, I can buy my way to heaven. In that case I’m not serving others because I love God or because I love them; I’m just using them to get God to give me what I want.
When we really reflect on them, it’s clear that even our best deeds are tainted by sin, and selfishness, and pride. You might respond: “But that’s just human nature. That’s just the way we are.” Exactly. Exactly. We are fallen. We are tainted. Even in the best of us, even in our best actions, there is the terrible stain of sin. Have you ever looked honestly into your own heart in the light of the Bible? If you do, you’ll realize that no amount of good deeds can make us right before God, not because God is unfair, but because our deeds are not really good. All our righteous deeds are like filthy rags. There is none who is righteous, no not one.
This is the reality of our sin, and God will not let it go on forever. God is loving, but he is also just. He will not let evil go unpunished. Listen, I know that none of us wants to hear that we are guilty before God and that one day we will face judgment. But I am only telling you what Jesus himself said over and over. If you think Jesus was a liar or a lunatic, then you can ignore what I am telling you. But if you think he was an honest person, full of love and compassion, someone who would not lie to you and who would only tell you what you most need to hear, then listen to what he says. Jesus talked more about hell and judgment than anyone else in the whole Bible. Go home and read the gospels for yourself. Consider what Jesus has to say to you. He is pleading with you tonight to trust him, to take him at his word, took look honestly at yourself and consider whether you are keeping God’s commands.
All of us will stand before God one day to give an account of our lives, and what will we say then? Do any of us dare to claim that we are not guilty? No, every one of us is guilty, a thousand times guilty. And that is why religion is so dangerous. It ignores this guilt utterly. It ignores the depth of our sin and pretends that we have earned God’s favor when we have really earned God’s punishment. So have you kept God’s commandments? I know I haven’t. I do not love Him as he deserves, and I do not love my neighbor as myself. I do not deserve God’s acceptance and I can never repay God for all of the things I have done. So there is no hope for me in religion, and there is no hope in religion for any of us.
What do we need? What are we looking for in all of our religious work, in all of our good deeds, in all of our rituals? We are looking for righteousness. Right-standing before God. Acceptance before God. But look at verse 9. Paul says his desire is to be found in Christ “not having a righteousness of his own”. Not having a righteousness of his own! But that’s terrible. How will he stand before God’s judgment? There is no hope for him. But he continues, “not having a righteousness of my own, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” Paul is saying something extraordinary here, and in it we have the very heart of the Christian message. Religion says: “If you give God righteousness, THEN he will accept you.” Christianity says: “God gives you righteousness, SO THAT he can accept you.” There is a kind of religious righteousness that we earn for ourselves, says Paul, but it is a hopeless, miserable, damnable thing. It will never rescue us. It will never save us. As long as we cling to it, we are doomed. But there is another kind of righteousness that is a gift from God. It is not a righteousness that we earn, but that we receive. It is not wages, it is a gift. If we trust in Christ, we can receive the right-standing that we all desperately need, but that none of us can earn. How does this work?
Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ was born in a trash heap. He lived as a poor, homeless man, teaching in the synagogues of Palestine. He healed the sick, he comforted the broken-hearted, he preached the good news to the poor. When people slapped him on one cheek, he turned to them the other as well. He blessed those who cursed him and prayed for those who mistreated him. He loved God with all his heart, mind, soul and strength and loved his neighbor as himself. But at the end of his life, one of his own friends betrayed him. He was beaten and whipped, but he did not insult or threaten. He was lead like a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before his shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. All of his closest friends abandoned him and disowned him. And while he was nailed to the cross gasping his last breaths, he cried out that even God had forsaken him. Why did all of this happen? A Roman soldier was standing near the cross and when he saw how Jesus died and how he spent his last breath asking for the forgiveness of his enemies and trusting in God, he exclaimed “Surely this was a righteous man!” And that is our answer. This was a righteous man; this was the righteous man. Jesus lived a perfect life, a life utterly free of sin, a life utterly committed to loving God and loving his neighbor. God looked down on Jesus and said “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus actually had what we all desperately need: a right standing before God.
And the message of the gospel is that he gives it freely to us. Jesus was the righteous man who deserved God’s blessing. We are the unrighteous people who deserve God’s judgment. But on the cross, Jesus took God’s judgment so that we could have God’s blessing. It is a free gift. As Pastor Ian often says in the morning service, it is the great exchange. Jesus was forsaken so that we could be accepted. Jesus was condemned so that we could go free. Jesus was stripped naked so that he could clothe us with the robes of his righteousness. God’s justice demands righteousness from us, but God’s mercy and love provides righteousness for us.
The gospel, the central message of Christianity, is not just different than the message of religion; it is the exact opposite of religion. At its core, the message of religion is about what we have to do: obey God, keep his commands, be loving. But the core of the gospel is all about what God has done for us. Religion says: this is what you have to do to achieve a right-standing before God, this is God’s law that will enable you to earn your own righteousness. The gospel says: your sin will prevent you from ever achieving a right-standing before God. But God has sent his one and only son to live for you and to die for you. Trust in Him. Put your faith in Him. Rely on Him. He will be your righteousness.
Discovering this truth is what transformed Paul from a religious person into a Christian. I no longer put my confidence in myself, says Paul. My confidence is in Jesus, and I will be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. This is the alternative that the gospel provides.
Finally, let’s return to the original question: how is joy a safeguard against the dangers of religion? Paul began this passage by commanding us to rejoice. So I’d like to explain how that works in practice: first for those of you who are Christians, and second for those of you who are not Christians. First, for those of you who are Christians, you need to recognize the terrible pull that religion has on the human heart. Remember, that Paul is writing to CHRISTIANS in Philippi and warning them against the dangers of religion. Why would he do that unless religion were a danger to Christians?
I don’t know about you, but I know that this is a warning I desperately need in my own life. When we first become a Christian, we often experience immense joy and delight. To know that Jesus has forgiven you and has made you his own child and has called you to follow him is so new and sweet that our heart overflows with adoration. But as we grow more mature, we find that the Christian life also has challenges. We find that there is a war in our hearts between sin and the Holy Spirit. We find that there is temptation all around us. And in the face of these realities, we may grow discouraged, but we may also grow religious. To cover up our feelings of guilt or unworthiness or inadequacy as Christians, we may try to get our comfort and assurance from religion rather than from Jesus.
What are the warning signs? Let me give you a few dozen from my own life: Is your obedience to Jesus characterized more by things that you avoid than by things that you do? When you think about other churches in New Haven, do you immediately think about how they differ from Trinity, or do rejoice to see God’s kingdom growing all over the city and to see people turning to Jesus in repentance and faith? Do you spend time reading the Bible to know more information about God or to know God more intimately? When you’re listening to a sermon, do you find yourself listening for mistakes in the preacher’s doctrine rather than delighting in God’s word and his presence? Is your life characterized more and more by love, joy, and peace or by criticism, pride, and bitterness? The sad fact is that religion is the natural tendency of the human heart. The most lively and warm-hearted faith in Jesus can quickly turn into a dry, bitter, lifeless religion. Then what is the remedy?
Joy. We need to daily practice the discipline of joy, because, as Paul says, “it is a safeguard to you.” We need to wake up every morning and remind ourselves of the gospel. We need to leap out of bed and say “Today, Jesus is my Lord and my Savior. He came into the world for me, he lived for me, he wept for me, he suffered for me, he died for me, he rose again for me, and he sits at the right hand of God for me. He has given me all things, and therefore I will live for Him.” We need to sing the gospel to ourselves in our hearts during the day: “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song.” And we need to lie down at night and say, “I am convinced that nothing will separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.” When we have tasted the joy of the gospel, we will never want to return to the bondage of religion. So if you are a Christian tonight, go home and ask God for the grace to practice this discipline of joy
If you are not a Christian tonight, do you see how miserable a thing religion is. Always thinking of yourself. Always trying to prove yourself. Always comparing yourself to others. Don’t you want to know the security and joy of a right-standing before God? One that is not based on your goodness, but on his goodness. And don’t you see that religion is not only miserable, but hopeless. All of us will stand before God’s judgment seat one day. Don’t your consciences tell you that you are guilty. Doesn’t the misery of this fallen world tell us that we are not good, loving people but deeply sinful people? “But I try so hard to be good!” you say. Look, my friends, the fact that you try so hard to be good only shows that you are not good. When was the last time you tried hard to breathe or to be hungry or to be sleepy. These things come naturally; you don’t need to try to do them. And yet, loving your neighbor, being generous with your money, forgiving your enemies, these things so incredibly hard for us because they are UNNATURAL for us. The fact you try so hard to be generous, and loving, and good shows you that your heart’s natural bent is towards selfishness, pride, and sin.
My application for you is this: repent and trust in Jesus. I hope that you see, maybe for the first time, that you are not a good person. Listen, I’m not saying this because I think I am better than you. Quite the opposite. I am also a sinner. I am also a bad person. I am a beggar, trying to show another beggar where to find bread. God is offering us all free forgiveness, free adoption, free grace.
Lastly, is there anyone here tonight who thinks they are too evil or too worthless to be accepted by God? It’s not true. Religion would tell you that you are hopeless, that you need to try harder, clean up your life, and fix your problems yourself before you can come to God. It says: “Begone you wretch, retreat in shame”, but Jesus says “My love, come here, I bore the blame.” Religion says that God only loves the very good, very respectable, very moral people. But Jesus says that he came to save sinners, the very worst of the worst. Turn from your sin, and look to Jesus. Look at him on the cross taking the punishment that you deserve, so that you could receive the acceptance that he deserved. “See from his head, his hands his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down. Did ever such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?” There is no one here beyond the reach of God’s mercy. Jesus died for sins once for all the righteous for the unrighteous to bring you to God. Turn from your sins, put all of your trust, all of your confidence, all of your reliance, and all of your hope on Him. He will not let you down. And you will go on your way rejoicing.
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