Beyond Bethlehem 2 - Israel's Most Wanted
For Mary and Joseph, the nativity was a scene of confusion, insecurity, and fear as they literally found themselves running for their lives. Here is the Christmas story through their eyes.
Israel’s Most Wanted
At the height of World War II, as Adolph Hitler’s bombers pummeled England, Winston Churchill could be heard on the radio, broadcasting his stubborn refusal to surrender. He continually encouraged the British people to fight on. A year ago I had the opportunity to go down into the underground bunker under the streets of London where Churchill and his cabinet directed the war effort. Only recently opened to the public you could tour through the room and narrow hallways. I saw the room and the telephone from which he called President Roosevelt. I saw the maps that showed the movements of the allies. Everyone’s desk had been left as they were at the end of the war. In one particular series of radio addresses, Churchill declared, “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence in the air; we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall never surrender . . . and I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Quotes taken from James Montgomery Boice: Nehemiah, Learning to Lead Revell Company, p. 52 & "Churchill, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk & Wagnall's Corporation.
I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
Maybe it’s about time we re-advertized Christianity. Maybe it’s time to witness to people and then tell them that if they follow Christ – He demands that they carry a cross.
What if we told people that Christ has nothing to offer them but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
With the growing animosity of our culture toward the Christian church, Christians are growing frightened and even angered that their convictions and freedoms are no longer being respected.
Where did God say the world would be our friend? When did the church ever receive a promise that the world would respect our convictions?
We have lived in the lap of luxury and freedom and frankly, the church has come to believe these are her rights.
The television is stocked with pseudo-pastors and pseudo-Bible teachers who continue to promote the lie that an easy path through life is synonymous with the narrow path.
No wonder people today, especially in America, who decide to give Jesus a try become shocked when instead of getting a catalog from heaven with lazy-boys to choose from, they get a sword and a shield and a helmet.
Jesus Christ said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Which means what? Hell is gonna try.
Not just institutionally, but personally.
So, strap on your armor.
Perhaps it’s time to re-advertize Christianity by re-discovering the life of Christ – as it really was. Even in His earliest days.
For if He, the perfect Man, the obedient Son, the sinless Savior had difficulties and challenges and struggles and hunger and sleeplessness and temptation and testing and He felt abandonment and misunderstanding and accusation and righteous anger and financial needs and material hardship and weariness of mind body and soul . . . who are we to demand anything less or something else?
And you need to understand that the shadow of the cross did not fall across his path when Christ turned 30, the shadow of the conflict between heaven and hell and the blood and the toil and the sweat and the tears came early.
At 8 days of age he cried out in pain as He was inducted into the family of Abraham’s covenant keepers through circumcision. At 40 days old he was presented at the temple and redeemed according to the law with 5 hard earned shekels that Joseph could barely afford to give.
And now . . . in the opening lines of Matthew’s gospel and chapter 2, the Magi – the wise men – arrive in Jerusalem. They are the spiritual descendants of their revered, wise man named Daniel – who centuries earlier had left a legacy of information for those who longed for the coming Messiah.
This group of Magi have left Babylon – the land of ancient Persia – in search of the Messiah.
They arrive with the earth-shattering message that should have stopped everyone in their tracks. (v. 2) Where is He who has been born King of the Jews. We saw his star, verse 2 tells us, in the east and we have come to worship Him.
We’ve seen His star.
There are good men who believe this star was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn – some believe it made the sign of the fish or a very bright light. Others believe this star was a low-hanging meteor, an erratic comet.
I believe it was nothing less than the Shekinah glory. Both the Hebrew (kokab) and the Greek (aster) are words for a star and they are used to represent any great brilliance or radiance. / John MacArthur, Matthew: Volume 1 (Moody Press, 1985), p. 29
- This was the glory of God in radiant light already seen around the angels (Luke 2:9)
- This was the pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21)
- This was the consuming fire on the mountaintop (Exodus 24:!7)
- This was the shining face, like the sun, of Christ on the mount of transfiguration (Matthew 17:2)
- This was the brilliant light that blinded Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3)
- This is the star that shall come forth from Jacob (Numbers 24:17)
- And at the end of the New Testament in the Book of Revelation – remember that Book? – He is called the bright and morning star (Revelation 22:16).
The Shekinah glory hovers above Jerusalem and they arrive and the light turns off.
So they have to ask where the king of the Jews is living?
Why not just lead them to Bethlehem to begin with?
Because there are prophecies to fulfill in the incarnation and this drama will include blood, toil, sweat and tears.
In verse 5, the chief priests and scribes tell Herod that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem – and off to Bethlehem the wise men have gone.
By the way, an astral conjunction, a meteor or a comet would not be able to identify a specific house, which verse 11 tells us they found, and inside that house, Matthew writes, was the child – paidion – it can refer to a newborn, but most often it signifies a little child. / W.E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Thomas Nelson, 1997), p. 180
Did you notice that the Wise men did not arrive at the stable, but at a house. This is not a manger scene with a baby, this is a neighborhood scene with a toddler.
So as you track the boyhood of Jesus carefully, you find Luke including the details of his birth in Bethlehem – in a stable or cave or perhaps an outer courtyard for animals – then his presentation at the Temple as a 2 month old – no younger than 40 days old and now here.
Now, Matthew fills in the puzzle pieces that inform us that Joseph and Mary have decided to stay in Bethlehem – why not – they’ve left behind a scandal. And they’ve found a home to rent or perhaps Joseph built some simple hut on borrowed land according to the customs of their culture.
So you discoverthat Joseph and Mary have moved into a house in Bethlehem and that Jesus is now a toddler – or little boy.
What happens next is the arrival of the wise men and their entourage, creating a traffic jam outside their home that the Shekinah glory briefly illuminated to direct them.
Once inside, Matthew tells us in verse 11, they see the child – a paidion – the toddler – with Mary, and they fell down and worshipped Him.
They gave him gifts – gold.
Seneca, the Roman philosopher and writer who lived during the days of Christ said that in Persia no one would approach a king without a gift and that gold was the proper gift for the king of men. / James Montgomery Boice, Matthew: Volume 1 (Baker, 2001), p. 31
They gave Him frankincense, a substance used in temple worship to serve as fragrant offerings between man and God.
They gave Him myrrh as well. A substance used for embalming the dead – it was a gift of faith to the one who had come to suffer and die. / Ibid, p. 32
The shadow of the cross fell over that little living room as these King makers gave this God-toddler gifts that declared He was King - gold; he was mediator between God and man - incense, and his mission in coming included dying - myrrh.
Now they had promised Herod that they would return and give him the street address so he could go and worship the Messiah too.
Verse 12 informs us that the Magi were warned in Bethlehem about the maniac in Jerusalem.
Why the warning?
Herod had been awarded by the Roman senate, the title, “King of the Jews” and he was not the kind of guy that shared his toys or his titles. He had begun to reign in 40 B.C.
He had done a lot of good for the Jewish people as he won their affection. He rebuilt the temple, returned taxes to the people during difficult times; built theatres and race tracks for entertainment and sea ports for commerce.
He was an old man by the time Christ was born and, most believe, inflicted with venereal diseases and for the most part, insane.
In fact, until he died Herod had become insanely jealous of his throne. He murdered every rival to the throne.
He was a descendant of Esau – and Edomite – but had married Mariamme, a Jewess from an aristocratic family in order to gain popularity with the Jews. After marrying her, he murdered her 17 year old brother and then later murdered her. He put to death several of his own sons in order to stamp out any threat of assassination.
He was a sadistic killer who slaughtered officials, generals, senators, soldiers and citizens that he suspected of any disloyalty.
On one occasion a faithful soldier told him, “The army hates your cruelty and there isn’t a common soldier who doesn’t side with your sons, and many of the officers openly curse you.” He thought this would gain him favor with Herod. But Herod ordered the man put on the rack stretched until he cried out name after name of the traitors. He even confessed the names of innocent men, anything to stop the torture but Herod pressed them to continue until the man died. Then Herod rounded up all the accused and had them torn to pieces while he, the historian wrote, livid with rage, jumped up and down as he screamed for them to die. / John Phillips, Exploring the Gospels: Matthew (Loizeaux, 1999), p. 44
No wonder the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, who had made Herod King over this region of the empire, remarked on one occasion that he would rather be Herod’s swine than Herod’s son. / Ibid, p. 40
So you can imagine the Wise men arriving in Jerusalem – Persian King makers announcing, “Where is the young King of the Jews living?’
They had no idea the madman they had encountered. They had no idea the firestorm they would ignite by their simple announcement.
But don’t miss the irony that the only man in this Jerusalem scene who believed the Wise men was Herod. He was the only one who took them seriously.
By the way in this paragraph you discover the three most common responses to the gospel of Jesus Christ – that He was born, lived a sinless life, died on the cross to pay the penalty for sin and then rose from the dead and is coming back to reign on planet earth. . . that message provokes the same three responses you find here:
- Number one, hostility and pride; there is no king but me; I will abdicate the throne for no one; I will surrender my will to none other than me, myself and I.
Hostility and pride.
- Secondly, indifference and religious activity. The Messiah is going to be born in Bethlehem – now move along, we’ve got sacrifices to prepare and traditions to nurse along. You’re in the way! We’ve got our religion to protect and we don’t have time to go to Bethlehem.
Hostility and pride,
Indifference and religious activity
- Third, worship and personal sacrifice; they come into the house – Joseph is evidently out working; Mary’s there and the little toddler. They fall down before Him and worship. They give him gifts – and because he’s just a normal little toddler he probably wasn’t interested in the gifts – he’s probably playing with the boxes.
What happens next in Matthew chapter 2 is the fulfillment of 3 prophecies. They are among the few clues and insights into the boyhood of Jesus.
Verse 13 sets the stage for the first of these three prophecies we’ll cover together.
Escape into Egypt
Matthew chapter 2, verse 13. Now when they – the Magi – had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up!” Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”
Listen, once Herod realized the Magi had tricked him and traveled back home on some other interstate, he would only assume that that they had warned the parents of Jesus as well. / R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Augsburg Publishing, 1964), p. 80
In the middle of the night, “Joseph, get up.” Which meant Joseph didn’t finish his rest – get up – in the middle of the night and get your family ready . . . Mary, hurry and get Jesus dressed and get out the door.
The aorist tenses of these verbs indicate single acts. In the middle of the night – get up, get Mary and Jesus and run for your lives.
Joseph, you don’t have time to pack a cart with that furniture you made; Mary, you’ll have to leave that crib; grab only what you can wear or carry and run.
Where are we going? Another country, where you’ll hide out until you’re told you can return.
Verse 14, So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. His was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: Out of Egypt I called My Son.
In other words, the evil and hatred of Herod in his murderous attempt to catch the Christ-child – we’re given a peek behind the curtain at the sovereign control of God – and guess what?
The evil, cruel paranoia of Herod is actually used to fulfill the predictions of God’s word and the purposes of God’s will.
But this was a hard path for Joseph and Mary.
You ever taken your family on a trip? How much did you prepare? How much did you pack? One suitcase per person – good luck!
My wife and I have traveled to foreign countries – like Minnesota. Well, France, Austria, England, Switzerland. Listen, talk about thinking through the packing process and the traveling dates and the schedule. So much preparation.
Money? Got it!
Passports? Got ‘em!
Tickets? Got ‘em!
Itinerary? Got it!
Carry ons, yep!
Check ins, yep!
The right things to read on the journey? Yep and I even remembered to buy some chewing gum for our ears that will pop away during the ascent of that Boeing 777.
And we even get to choose the most convenient time to depart and we already know where we’ll be staying when we get there; it’s all mapped out.
That’s certainly the way God would want it!
Slip into the middle of God’s will for Joseph and Mary.
No time for any of that here. No map; no choice of departure; no time to pack just the right things.
In fact, in verse 13, the word for flee in your English Bible is from the Greek word pheugo (feugw) which means to seek safety in flight. It’s the same Greek word that gives us our transliterated English word, fugitive. / Ritz Rienecker/Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Regency, 1976), p. 4
In other words, “Joseph, take Mary and Jesus and run for your lives!” You have just become Israel’s most wanted!
Why? Because Herod wants to kill your little boy.
Where do we run? Egypt!
The grammar in this text indicates that their flight is the beginning of action that is to be continued. In other words, they were not to stop until they were safely within Egypt and beyond the reach of Herod. From Bethlehem to the border of Egypt was 75 miles.
MacArthur, p. 40
Joseph was given no specific address . . . he wasn’t told that anyone would be waiting for them when they arrived . . . where they would be staying . . . not even directions for the safest route there . . . just run!
Now? Now . . . in the middle of the night!
God could have protected Joseph and his little family right under the vain nose of Herod. He could have deposed Herod and killed the soldiers; God could have blinded the soldiers of Herod. He could have miraculously hidden the family like a suitcase of smuggled Bibles the communist guards never saw. He could have . . . but He didn’t.
God chose to protect them by the very ordinary and un-miraculous means of flight. The will of God meant hardship and suffering, but He would sustain them through it.
The message for them to run was supernatural – the word of God arrived in a dream. The word of God has arrived to us in a Book. His spirit through conformity to the Word provokes our hearts and minds and we take steps in obedience to Him. All our questions aren’t answered and neither is theirs.
Listen, God did not do something for them that He withholds from you.
Again, the Medieval church couldn’t imagine this being the will of God the Father for His son . . . and so apocryphal writings compiled legends and myths to make it seem less like Joseph and Mary were being punished with hardship for their obedience.
One legend recorded that when Joseph and Mary and Jesus needed a place to sleep one night they sought refuge in a cave. It was so cold that the ground was covered with frost. A little spider recognized Jesus and wished so much that he could do something to keep him warm that he spun his web across the entrance of the cave so thick that it hung like a curtain and the cave became warm and cozy. / Edited from William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1 (Westminster Press, 1975), p. 35
Other legends record that when they arrived at a grove of fruit trees, Jesus commanded the trees to bend down so that Joseph could pluck the fruit; and then Jesus ordered a spring of water to gush from the roots of the tree for their thirst. Mary was able to sleep while an angel played a hymn for Mary on the violin.
Wherever they traveled, animals would bow and pay homage to them and idols would crumble to dust whenever they passed them.
It was really more like a triumphal entry . . . a holiday trip with fruit, water, nice animals and symphonic music to soothe their weary minds.
That’s what we would expect.
Their stay in Egypt is also riddled with myths and legends. Legends I came across in my study like the legend of Mary washing the swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus there in their Egyptian home – by the way, Jesus isn’t wearing swaddling clothes by that time – but never mind that – a demon possessed boy came by and touched some of the swaddling clothes Mary had put out on a line to dry and he was instantly exorcised.
I also read a number of accounts of Jesus’ bath water which was especially powerful. His bath water healed a princess of leprosy and anybody else who came in contact with it.
According to the legends and the apocryphal writings, Egypt was a vacation. Every need was instantly met and suffering and hardship were eliminated not only in their lives but everyone’s lives around them. Little Jesus performed miracle after miracle!
Listen, we’re clearly told in John’s Gospel, chapter 2, verse 11, that the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana was the first miracle Jesus performed – the first attesting sign of His deity – the arche semeion (arch shmeion) – the beginning of his miracles which He first displayed in Cana as he began His ministry at the age of 30. / Rienecker/Rogers, p. 222
But for now, there were no special miracles to turn Egypt into paradise. Nor has God promised to turn your Egypt into paradise. This is not paradise.
And all the people said – Amen.
The escape of Joseph and Mary and their little toddler from Bethlehem that night, and their long journey to Egypt, was the same kind of journey that every other ordinary family would have had to endure. There were no angels playing violins or camels bowing to them along the way.
In fact, their journey was all the more difficult – this family was Israel’s most wanted – all the way there you can easily imagine that for several weeks of traveling, Joseph is looking over his shoulder every other minute; they imagine the clattering of hooves behind every hilltop; they want to stop and rest longer than they allow themselves; their hearts never really stop beating all the way to Egypt and they have to be asking, “Why?”
God’s angel told them – this will be the fulfillment of one more prophecy that will validate the authenticity of the Messiah’s claim 29 or so years from now.
God said He’ll come out of Egypt . . . and now Egypt becomes their hiding place until Herod dies.
Jesus would become the picture of Israel’s calling from that same country, for Israel was often spoken of in the Old Testament as the son or sons of God (Hosea 11:1).
So the Son of God will illustrated Israel deliverance. But there’s even more to it than that – Christ will not only illustrate the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt, He will illustrate the deliverer from Egypt.
You remember, there had been another deliverer born in Egypt. He also had avoided a death warrant from the King by his parent’s quick action. The King – Pharaoh had ordered the killing of all the Jewish males. Moses was hidden away and survived and eventually led the people out of bondage.
But this Deliverer, according to Hebrews chapter 3 is called the greater Moses.
They both came out of Egypt and they both lead their people out of bondage. But the deliverance of Moses was temporary and insufficient. The deliverance of Jesus Christ is eternal and all-sufficient.
Bloodbath in Bethlehem
If you look back at Matthew chapter 2 and verse 16, the second prophecy is about to be tragically fulfilled. Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and send and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. 17. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 18. A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.
The actions of Herod literally defy imagination. He’s around 70 years of age – diseased, crippled, infected with untreatable venereal diseases so that his intestines are literally rotting; his body guards have to rotate frequently because they cannot bear the stench emanating from the pores of his skin. His physicians can’t heal him; the warm baths cannot soothe him; his body is covered with ulcers and his legs are too swollen for him to walk. But no king will have his throne.
Even though he knows his death is imminent, he grasps his throne. He is the perfect picture of depraved, stubborn mankind.
One of his final orders is to round up hundreds of prominent Jewish citizens – they are arrested and incarcerated inside the arena. He ordered his troops that on the day that he died, these Jews were to be killed. His command has survived the centuries – he said, “When I die, the Jews may not mourn me, but by the gods they will mourn. / Phillips, p. 46
For now, there is great weeping in Bethlehem. Historical demographers estimate that there were at least 30 or more children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem and the surrounding area.
Instead of the religious leaders and the rabbis and the scribes rushing to Bethlehem to crown the young Messiah as their King, the soldiers of Herod stampede into two and rip little boys from their mother’s arms and put them to death.
Rachel is weeping for her children. This represented all Jewish mothers who wept over Israel’s great tragedy in the days of Jeremiah, and this text tells us that their weeping was a foreshadowing of the mothers in Bethlehem who would weep bitterly over the massacre of their little boys. / MacArthur, p. 45
But what makes Herod’s crime even more wicked is the fact that he knew that the little boy he was trying to kill was the Messiah. This first century antichrist was a pawn in the hands of Satan attempting to destroy the seed of the woman – the virgin born Messiah.
Then Herod died.
By the way, his sister and her husband who were supposed to signal the soldiers to murder the Jews in the arena went and instead opened the doors and set these Jewish captives free.
Another ironic illustration? I don’t think so – for when the final Antichrist is killed, the Jewish nation will be set free.
We have one more prophecy to fulfill in these days of Christ’s childhood.
- We have an Escape into Egypt and that prophecy in verse 15.
- We have a Bloodbath in Bethlehem and that prophetic fulfillment in verse 18.
Nobodies in Nazareth
And now we have a prophecy in verse 23 regarding what I’ll simply outline for you as, Nobodies Living in Nowhere. That’s what they were considered and that’s where they were living. I’ll come back to this in detail in our study on December 27th – the Sunday after Christmas – and for the 25 of you who are still in town, we’re going to study the clues to his childhood development – I’ve already entitled our study, but I might change it, Parenting the Perfect Child. I haven’t found anybody I can use as an illustration . . . there are none on the planet.
I want to explore with you his home and family and upbringing in Nazareth – we’ll do that on the 27th.
But for now let’s just find out how they got there.
Notice verse 19. But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, 20. Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel.
Sound familiar? In the middle of the night – Joseph, get up. Here we go again. Poor Joseph will never lie down again without wondering – am I gonna make it through the night.
The difference in this verse is the lack of urgency. There’s no need to flee, run, hide or fear. In fact, notice the reassuring message the angel delivers at the end of verse 20, For those who sought the Child’s life are dead. 21. So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22. But when he heard that Archelaus (ArkelaoV) was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.
So here’s Joseph thinking they’re in the clear – their weeks and months of hiding in Egypt are over.
Jesus is still called a paidion so we know he’s still a little boy when Joseph is told to return to Israel.
The text implies that while they are on their way, Joseph learns that Herod’s son Archelaus has been given the throne.
Archelaus is worse than his father – in fact, he inaugurated his reign by killing 3,000 Jews in the Temple during Passover. His reign was so bad that even Augustus, the Roman emperor, no saint himself, finally banished him after 9 years of atrocities.
So Joseph had every reason to be afraid. And so God came to him again in a dream and told him specifically to settle in the regions of Galilee, and Joseph moved his family and settled down in Nazareth.
And guess what? Verse 23 tells us, This fulfilled what was spoken through the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
Nazareth was located about 55 miles north of Jerusalem. The inhabitants in these Galilean regions were people known for being rough, uneducated and even uncivilized.
Nazareth was an insignificant village . . . just a common place filled with common, ordinary people trying to make a living.
The earthly origins of Christ were as challenging and difficult as you can imagine; an outdoor shelter for a birthplace - his parents on the run as fugitives, immigrating to Egypt and then back to Israel where they built their lives in obscurity.
Listen, Jesus Christ is one of us. He is one of us. In fact, He is far more ordinary than any of us.
And Joseph and Mary – what character. What obedience. What perseverance. What confusion. What fear. What danger. What desperation as they cling to brief announcements without most of the details and move from place to place to place.
Let me mention three thoughts and leave them with you to think through:
- The will of God does not circumvent the challenges of life
- The love of God does not eliminate attack by the enemy
- The promises of God do not lessen responsibility by the believer
How easy to think – the will of God and the love of God and the promises of God lead to closeness to God and closeness to God could never mean blood, sweat, toil or tears. Surely for the godly life is good.
Well, here you have it. The beloved Son, his God-chosen mother, his God appointed step-father, fully in God’s will, enveloped by God’s love, communicated to with God’s promises – you are fulfilling the prophecies of old – your life is a fulfillment of my promises to the world!
And what did they encounter?
Blood, sweat, toil and tears. “Joseph and Mary – you are in the middle of my will – now run for your lives.”
My hat is off to them . . . I have come to greatly appreciate this young couple through our brief study. What surrender to keep getting up and going.
And they did. Time and time again, they would change everything to obey God’s word.
One author I read recently said that as he traveled in England, he saw in a graveyard the tombstone of an old Cavalier soldier who had lost his property and his then his life in a battle defending King Charles. The epitaph read: He served King Charles with a constant, dangerous and expensive loyalty. / Bruce Larson, The Communicator’s Commentary (Word Books, 1983), p. 59
What a great testimony for the Christian who allows the shadow of the cross to fall across his or her path. What a testimony of true allegiance. To serve our King with a constant, dangerous and expensive loyalty to Him. No matter what – be it blood, sweat, toil and tears.
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