Preaching Elijah

Preaching Elijah June 10, 2013

In the Revised Common Lectionary, today is the third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5.  The church catholic meditates on the Jesus story in Luke 7:11-19 where Jesus raises the widow’s son from the dead at the town of Nain and is pronounced a prophet. (This theme is certainly brought out by tonight’s Vespers canticle antiphon: A great prophet has arisen among us and God has visited his people.)

I preached today in a young second-generation Chinese evangelical congregational context and set myself up for a challenge. Instead of using the Gospel reading, I tried something that I’d never done before: use the first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures to construct a homily for the lectionary themes for the week. Today’s reading was from Elijah’s visitation to the widow of Zarephath in Sidon.

Drawing inspiration from Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s weekly postings of her sermon texts, I’ll post mine here too, though she is a far, far better preacher than I could ever hope to become. (This is not because she is a good performer, though she is that as well. It’s rather because her pastoral gifts seem way off the charts.) Two prefactory notes to this Chinglican homiletical rendition of the passage, one hermeneutical, the other homiletical.

The hermeneutic I’m using here is a typically Chinglican one: typically catholic, typically feminist, and typically positioned between church and academia. Because I don’t read Hebrew, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Aramaic, or German with any level of competency, I decided to do a light review of Hebrew Scripture studies in the last week by poking around the various journals. This literature troubled me on some levels because in the wake of historical criticism going into crisis, there seemed to be a few anachronisms, especially claims that religion could be ‘private’ in an antique text (I felt like throwing Talal Asad at them). However, there were also some gems: in the wake of the historical critical method undergoing some level of crisis since the 1980s, the most interesting historical readings of the text have been feminist materialist ones that probe the political economy circumscribing the text (props to Gale Yee and Alice Keefe for brilliant analyses of the Hosea narratives that were methodologically useful for the Kings text, and props to Phyllis Trible on her analysis on the Elijah narratives themselves). From these readings, it has become apparent that where an older generation of Deuteronomistic History scholars posited a series of binaries particularly between Ba’al and Yahweh (and also Elijah v. Jezebel), these binaries break down upon a close reading of the text itself, a typical task of feminist analysis itself (no, feminism is not just about ‘gender’; it’s about breaking down conventional binaries that uncritically prop up unwarranted hierarchies). Theologically, then, it seems much more convincing to analyze ancient Israelite ‘religion’ (I prefer ‘state cult,’ thank you) as viewing Yahweh as part of the Ba’alic cult, with monolatrous prophets and monotheistic editors during the Exile inserting their own theological analyses that posited a Yahweh that stood out from the Ba’alic cult.

This was helpful for the reading of the text for two reasons. First, it helped me get out of my modern habits, which would have been to read the text anachronistically as one where Elijah and the widow take a Kierkegaardian ‘leap of faith’ into the hands of the unknown God, and God delivers because he’s their Tillichian ‘ground of being.’ These studies helped to situate the political context of the text, helping me to see the political dynamics going on between Elijah and the Omride dynasty, between Yahweh and Ba’al. However, second, these feminist analyses cautioned me against taking a strictly dichotomous view between Yahweh and Ba’al, to acknowledge how interconnected they were in the Israelite state cult and to examine deeply the original theological contributions of monolatrous prophets issuing polemics to extract Yahweh from the Ba’alic cult. They also helped me to see parallels between Jezebel and the widow of Zarephath without positing either as ‘good woman’ or ‘bad woman,’ but as very interesting and complex theological actresses in their own right.

Where I depart from the feminist analysis is where I depart from the comparative religion enterprise altogether with a sort of catholic twist: this is the theological move I’m developing from the above hermeneutical method. Reading the feminist analyses, there was a sort of polemic against Yahweh as himself a god of terror, at least as revealed by the prophets. But if we are to take the catholic development of doctrine seriously (one posited by Peter himself when he says in his second epistle that the prophets longed to look into the things of partaking of the divine nature), even someone like Elijah might have been revealing Yahweh through only a glass dimly. Certainly, this is borne out by other interesting analyses in Hebrew Scripture studies where scholars currently note that the Elijah narratives seem to be schizophrenic (or in Charles Taylor’s terms, ‘deeply cross-pressured’) on Elijah’s theology: Elijah is himself a bit of a bombastic character (declaring a cessation of rain on Israel, staging a contest of the gods, slaughtering the prophets of Ba’al, telling Jezebel that dogs will lick up her blood, sending fire down on Amaziah’s army), but the narrative’s portrayal of Yahweh is that of a still, small voice, a gentle God who sounds nothing like Ba’al. If that’s the case, then what’s revealed in this passage is a God who cares for the widow, even if she is from the land of Jezebel, a portrait of Yahweh whose contrast to Ba’al is not one of power, but one of love, certainly foreshadowing the God who reveals himself as love in Jesus Christ, almost despite the prophet’s own over-the-top moments and the authors’ and editors’ ideological agendas.

Of course, I know that this may not be a kosher move in biblical studies; my friend Sam happens to have a fantastic post detailing why bad christological moves in interpretation shut down the congregation’s ability to participate in worship. But the remedy for this might not be to forego talking christologically in a Hebrew Scripture text–we are, after all, Christians; it’s what we do, and why we were considered heretical in the first century–it might be to display a fuller christology than the pet christologies in our traditions. This is a bit of a catholic move, joining these texts in a lectionary that includes the Hebrew Scriptures, the psalter, the epistles, and the Gospels that is read by the church catholic to all speak as a choir of different parts about Jesus (sorry, I got the choir thing from the second reading in today’s Office of Readings from the epistle of St. Ignatius to the Romans).

That ‘choral’ canonical reading is the catholic move that I think is liturgically important, even if it might be viewed with a bit of suspicion from the academy (which is why this sermon is positioned between the church and the academy). There are plenty of passages from which I can draw to make these comparisons, but responding especially to Sam’s point about how these moves should be cautiously made to avoid doing violence to the text, I think in a homiletical setting, these moves should be governed by the lectionary. For example, I could have used Luke 4 where there is a direct reference to the widow of Zarephath. But that would have taken this sermon in a radically different theological direction from the move via Luke 7, which is what the lectionary prescribes. With Luke 4, I would have had to make the sermon about radical inclusion. But the Luke 7 reading makes the piece about Yahweh’s radical self-revelation to the widow as a God of love whose character is radically different from that of Ba’al, a point that probably neither Elijah nor even the Kings writers and editors had fully worked out. Replying to Sam, then, these christological moves need not always be a disservice to the congregation if they are governed by the lectionary; in fact, they can be opportunities for theological creativity.

These hermeneutical and theological moves transition me to homiletics, the delivery of today’s sermon. Here’s where the Chinglican moves come in full form: I was preaching to a group of English-speaking second-generation Chinese Canadian evangelicals whose company I really enjoy. They sing loudly in worship, they allow themselves to crack the most hilarious jokes during worship, they actually laugh at my jokes (brownie points for that), and they are just a fun group to be around. With their lives situated among their generally conservative Chinese families (‘Chinese’ does not equate conservatism, which is why the qualifier is needed), their fledgling second-generation ministry at church, and their secular lives in either school or work, the question became how to sharpen the text’s punch while speaking to this particular segment of the church catholic, even while at the same time keeping the church catholic in mind.

In terms of packing a good homiletical punch, I think Karl Barth has always done a particularly good job (I also said, ‘Now I can preach again!’ after reading Romans), so you will see a lot of ‘God says, “No,'” in this sermon. This especially includes saying ‘no’ to the notion that we as younger-generation Chinese Canadian evangelicals need to develop an exclusionary identity. These identity politics are a fraught issue within the current conversation in Asian North American evangelical circles, but if Yahweh is so inclusive of a widow in Sidonian territory, then the politics of developing a distinctive identity cannot be pursued via the politics of exclusion. Asian American Protestant historian Timothy Tseng and radically orthodox theologian Jonathan Tran have helped me see this very clearly: our second-generation identity politics can be premised on exclusion, especially by orientalizing our parents. These exclusionary impulses should be homiletically countered: because Yahweh reveals himself to the widow as a gift, we too must reveal the Lord Jesus as a gift, as the Bread of Life come down from heaven to give himself for the life of the world, not to consolidate our distinctive identities. (I didn’t develop the eucharistic theme, though, because I didn’t want to get into a debate about the Real Presence, though as you’ll see toward the end of the sermon, there’s a brief mention of the Holy Spirit, which I think is crucial: the thoughtful charismatics I have encountered tend to be quite drawn to a high Mariology, a high Eucharistic theology, and a high ecclesiology.)

Here’s the sermon, then. It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. But I suppose it’s a good record of where I’m at so far in my wrestling with how I might read the Hebrew Scriptures as a Chinglican Christian.



A Sermon for Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Proper 5

1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

This sermon focuses on the Old Testament and Gospel readings.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Elijah reading is one of those passages where it looks like the take-away message is, ‘Don’t you trust God?’  It looks like one of those passages where the point is that the really good Christians are the ones who trust God, and the bad Christians who don’t have enough faith or the non-Christians who have no faith just live a lower order of existence.  If you’re not like this, then you should educate me as to how you think. But most of the Christians I hang out with occasionally make these sorts of off-hand remarks, like, Oh, that person is not a Christian, she doesn’t have any faith, and that’s why she has no hope in life.  Sometimes we mean well—we might think that we want to go evangelize those lost people if we get a chance—but this seems to be the way that many of my Christian friends talk.  That annoying colleague at work is annoying because he’s not Christian and because he has no faith, so he takes out his psychological imbalance on us (we think that God can fix him psychologically).  Those politicians of that particular party don’t know God, so they support immoral positions that don’t align with our Christian values; we must battle with them in the cultural arena because they will corrupt our society and our next generation.  Those friends who betrayed us by not taking our side when our lives were going rough—well, maybe they’re just not Christians because obviously if they had faith, they’d have the emotional security to stand with us.  This is even true among second-generation Chinese Christians of our age.  I don’t know if you think this, but whole books have been written titled Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents and The Chinese Way of Doing Things, where the premise is that because our parents are Chinese, they hold on to these cultural values that stunt their faith so that they end up controlling us, stopping us any time we say we want to become a missionary or a pastor and forcing us to become doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers, and accountants (not that there’s anything wrong with that…my wife is a pharmacist, and we’re quite happy about that!).

It becomes easy to read the Bible like this.  As we read and do our Christian thing, we criticize people we think are losers, or people who annoy us, people who don’t share our values, or people whom we think want to control us.  We say that they either don’t having enough faith to trust God or maybe just have no hope because they’re not Christian.  It’s very tempting to read the passage on Elijah like that. God tells his prophet Elijah to go to Zarephath, a town north of Israelite territory, and to trust him to provide food through a poor widow who only has a handful of flour and a drop of oil in a jug.  It seems pretty straight-forward.  The passage is about trusting God, like if we were in Elijah’s shoes and God called us to go to a far distant land to maybe be a missionary, reach out to the poor widow, and fulfill his purpose for us in our lives.  The widow also has to take a leap of faith, trusting God’s prophet that when God says that the flour and oil won’t run out, they really won’t: do you have enough faith, brothers and sisters, to believe that?  The leap of faith, we think, is what makes us different from our non-Christian friends or from our bad Christian brothers, sisters, and parents who just don’t have enough faith.  In fact, we tell ourselves that non-Christians or bad Christians have little hope because they don’t have a God to believe in; that’s why they have no purpose in life.  Unlike our non-Christian friends, then, we say that we should be secure in our life, our future, our education, our careers, our family values, even whether we’ll meet that special someone someday and date them with biblical principles, and if we don’t have that kind of security, maybe it’s just because we don’t have enough faith.  We tell ourselves that we need faith in God to hear his calling and find out what his will is, just like Elijah heard God’s calling and found out that his will was for him to go north to feed the widow.  What makes us Christian, we might think, is that we take these leaps of faith because we believe in a god and we think we should obey him, leaping into the unknown, letting the invisible God give us a purpose and provide for us while we do his will.

The only trouble is, that’s not what the passage is about.

The whole reason that God is telling Elijah to get food from a widow in the first place is that Elijah is on the run from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  Ahab and Jezebel believe in gods—in fact, they believe in too many of them—which means that they happen to have a lot of faith.  Just to give you some context: if you grew up in church, you might know the name Jezebel, and you might associate her with this evil witch-queen straight out of something like Game of Thrones who does like black magic and seduces weak men.  That’s not quite it: the real Jezebel was a princess, the daughter of the king of a fairly wealthy merchant city north of Israel called Sidon (actually, that still sounds like Game of Thrones, but whatever).  Jezebel’s dad and probably Ahab’s dad arranged for them to get married to cement the trade between their two wealthy kingdoms.  The trouble is, once Jezebel becomes queen of Israel, she gets Ahab to start worshipping her god, build an altar that god, build a house for that god, and host some 450 priests to that god at their dinner table (which means she was pretty rich).

That god was called Ba’al.

If you’ve been in church for a while, you might recall hearing this name Ba’al (some people pronounce it ‘bayle’).  Ba’al seems to pop up in every Old Testament story where there’s another god that the real God doesn’t like his people worshipping.  It’s like all these gods get called Ba’al.  They all get called ba’al, because technically, all that ba’al means is ‘lord,’ like some kind of sovereign god, king of the universe, powerful over everything, probably the guy to pray to if you’re a farmer and you’re hoping for some rain.  And for sure, there was a major Ba’al that people prayed to, but there were lots of ba’als (ba’al place names, people named ba’al, subgods that were ba’alish).  In fact, because Ba’al was so generic, some people even thought that worshipping Ba’al was the same thing as worshipping the God of Israel, who went by a name called Yahweh, the God who told the prophet Moses back at the burning bush that his name was I AM WHO I AM, Yahweh.

But here’s the point.  The issue was never that Elijah believed in a god who gave him a purpose in life and everybody else didn’t believe in a god, so they had no purpose in life.  The issue was more like, who is this God that everybody says that they trust and who gives them a purpose in life?

This is a really important question in this passage, because Yahweh and Ba’al really seem to hate each other’s guts.  With Elijah running from Ahab and Jezebel, you could say that Yahweh and Ba’al were sort of duking it out.  It’s pretty clear in the text that Yahweh didn’t really like Ba’al, because when Ahab started worshipping Ba’al, it says that he ‘did more to provoke the anger of Yahweh, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him’ (16:33).  Yahweh is pissed (am I allowed to say that in church?): he doesn’t like being in competition with this Lord Ba’al.  So Yahweh tells his prophet Elijah to tell King Ahab that it won’t rain until Yahweh says it will (take that, Ba’al).  This means that, as the passage is starting out, we get the sense that Ba’al and Yahweh are both sort of rain gods. This means that they controlled the agricultural economy of the time by making it rain.  By getting involved in this sort of mean-spirited competition, humans become their victims: while they’re duking out their god powers, the humans get a drought.  We get the sense, at least initially, that Yahweh and Ba’al are pretty similar in character: they both like to be worshipped, they both like to control the world, they both have human pawns like prophets and kings and priests who tell people what God wants them to do.  In other words, it’s no surprise that some people thought that worshipping Ba’al and Yahweh was the same thing because it really was, you know, same difference.

And that’s where Yahweh, the God of Israel, begins to surprise us.  He’s nothing like Ba’al.

Yahweh tells his prophet Elijah, who’s been hiding by a creek living off bread and meat that ravens have been sending him, to go up north, up to Zarephath which belongs to Sidon, the same city where Queen Jezebel is from.  Elijah is going to Jezebel country.  There, Yahweh says, a widow is going to feed you.  Now this still sounds pretty mean and exploitative.  It’s like Yahweh saying that in this epic battle with Ba’al, he’s sending Elijah to Jezebel ‘Ba’al-mama’ country, and there, they’re going to exact revenge on Jezebel by making the poorest of the poor, a widow, pay.

The widow seems to read the situation like this as well.  Elijah gets up there and sees this widow gathering sticks, and he says to her in the middle of this drought where there is no water, ‘Hey, get me some water in a jar so that I can drink it.’  You get the sense that this widow goes like, Oh fine, but while she goes off to get it, Elijah demands more: ‘Oh, bring me a piece of bread too.’  The widow has it up to here.  She goes, ‘OK, I get it.  You and that Yahweh your God with your drought thing, you win. You’ve defeated Ba’al. I don’t have anything baked, I’ve only got a handful of flour and a little drop of oil in my jar, so I’m gathering sticks, going to take it home to my boy, we’re going to bake that last crumb of bread, and we’re going to die.  The end; you win.’

This is when Elijah surprises her.  ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Elijah says.  Sure, go home and do all that stuff you said about dying if that’s what floats your boat, but first bake me a little cake and then make something for yourself and your son.  See, the thing is, Yahweh isn’t interested in exacting revenge on you and exploiting you.  We aren’t here to pick on Jezebel country.  In fact, Yahweh’s message is that your jar of flour and your jar of oil won’t go empty until it rains again and you can grow new crops.  I’m not here to exploit you.  I’m here as a gift.

And so they start living off the gift.  They live the good life in the middle of this drought, Elijah with the widow and her son, with the infinite supply of flour and oil.  Life is good.  The widow comes to believe that maybe this Yahweh is not so bad.  Maybe he’s not as vengeful as she thought he was.  Maybe he’s not duking it out with Baal after all.  Maybe he’s a good guy, a good God.

And then her son drops dead.  In anger, the widow confronts Elijah, ‘I knew life was getting too good!  So this is your god after all!  What do you guys have against me?  All you want to do is to drudge up my sin, our sin, the sin that Jezebel caused when she put Ba’al in competition with Yahweh.  And what happens?  Your Yahweh takes it out on my boy.  The little people always suffer for the politics of the gods!  I knew it!  All the gods are the same!’

Elijah then carries the boy up to his upper chamber, puts him on his bed, and cries out to Yahweh: ‘Oh, Yahweh my God, is this what you’re really like?  Like, you’ve got to be kidding me.  Are you really going to take out your conflict with Baal on this widow by killing her son?’  He stretches himself on the boy three times and cries out, ‘Oh, Yahweh, my God, let this child’s life come back into him!’  Yahweh listens.  The boy revives.  Elijah takes him down and gives him back to his mom.  And in that moment, the widow says, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth.’  In other words, now I know intimately for myself that you truly speak for Yahweh when you say things like Yahweh is not in competition with Ba’al, that he’s not going to exact his revenge on us, that he has given you to us as a gift, that instead of exploiting the poor, he’s always on our side.

I said at the beginning of this sermon that many of us might think that what makes us Christian is that we believe in a god.  But as Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath shows us, there’s a big difference between Ba’al and Yahweh, between the gods as we normally think of them and who the living God really is.  Yahweh is not Ba’al: he is not a sovereign dictator who exacts revenge whenever we place other gods in competition with him.  Yahweh is a gift, loving us, giving us life, giving us himself.

Putting our faith in Yahweh, the God who gives himself to us, is what makes us Christian because this God is the God ultimately revealed to us in Jesus.  Here’s a Jesus story.  In Luke 7, Jesus is traveling with his disciples when he comes across the funeral of another widow’s son.  The similarity to the Elijah story couldn’t be more striking.  Jesus sees the widow weeping as the funeral procession marches out of the city, her only son, dead.  It’s as if he hears the cry of the widow screaming at Elijah, ‘Is this what God is really like?’  Jesus stops the procession and calls to the man, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’  The young man gets up, and just like Elijah gave the son back to the widow, Jesus gives the son back to his widow mom, and the whole town declares him to be a prophet, one who brings God’s favourable gaze to his people.  Now I know that you are a man of God, and the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth.

But Jesus is more than a prophet, greater even than Elijah.  Elijah reveals to the widow in Jezebel-country that Yahweh does not the exploit the poor as a sort of vengeance for being put in competition with other gods.  Elijah shows the widow, and through the widow, shows us, that God is a gift-giver: he gives bread that never runs out; he brings the widow’s dead son back to life.  So does Jesus.  Jesus comes breaking bread with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, and feeding thousands of people in one go; on more than one occasion, he also brings dead kids back to life to their rejoicing parents.  But Jesus does more, because where Elijah shows us that Yahweh gives gifts, Jesus is himself the gift.

As one greater than Elijah, Jesus doesn’t just bring sons back to life; he is the Son of God who comes back to life.  Elijah challenges Ahab and Jezebel about their Ba’al worship and then runs for his life.  Jesus also challenges the established picture of God during his time, a picture that saw God as taking revenge on behalf of his people against enemies who conquered them and currently ruled them, a God who will rightfully enthrone God’s people to take over the world and make the unbelievers pay for their crimes.  Jesus said, No, to that picture of God; he showed us that the way of God is not the way of conquest, but the way of the cross, loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, praying for those who mistreat us.  But where Elijah runs for his life after he makes challenges Ba’al, Jesus gives his life to show us that God really is love.  Jesus gives himself into the hands of those who hang on to the Ba’al version of god for their identity and the preservation of their power.  As he hangs alone and abandoned on the cross, he cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’ but because it’s in Aramaic (Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani), the people around the cross go, ‘What? Elijah?’ and they mock him, ‘Ha! Let’s see if Elijah will come save him now!’  Jesus the Son of God dies, Elijah does not show up, and the disciples go into hiding, screaming just like the widow: I knew it! All these gods are the same.  They’re just out for their own power, and the ones who suffer are the little people.

And that is when God speaks a word that rings clearer than any word he had ever spoken through Elijah: God raises Jesus from the dead.  God says, No, to the version of god that’s vengeful and evil and powerful at the expense of the little people.  God says, This Jesus who is raised from the dead, this is my Son, this is the man of God in whose mouth the word of Yahweh is truth.  Listen to him.

And Jesus, the Son of God raised to life in whose mouth the word of Yahweh is truth, remains consistent to the truth of the God that he reveals, the God who is a gift, the God who is love.  When Jesus says, ‘Do not be afraid,’ to his disciples, he tells them that he has not returned from the dead to seek vengeance.  Because he appears only to his disciples, he does not seem to care about confronting the political people who put him to death.  Because he eats and drinks with his followers, he shows them that he won’t punish them for ditching him at the cross.  No, he says to his disciples the exact same thing that Elijah says to the widow in Jezebel-country, the widow who thought he was there to take out God’s wrath on her: Do not be afraid.  But as one greater than Elijah, Jesus does not only provide flour and oil that won’t run out.  Jesus gives himself to them, to us, as the Bread of Life.  He sends the Holy Spirit on us, his church, joining us with the life of God, to his risen life, so that as he lives forever, we will also live eternal life.

That’s what makes you and me Christians: it is that we have received the life of Jesus as a gift.  This changes everything.  This means that believing in a generic god who controls our life and gives us purpose does not make us Christian.  What makes us Christian is that we have received God’s gift of life.  It means that we have come to realize that the living God is not a god who demands us to give him stuff, sucking us dry by putting time commitments on us and guilt-tripping us when what’s on our mind is not him, but school stress, family problems, workplace politics, unemployment depression, dating agonies, or just the boredom of an unexciting life.  It means that we don’t set ourselves up as superior to non-Christians and that we don’t even exact revenge on the Ahabs and the Jezebels who come after us with their sovereign, controlling lords.  We simply love everyone, even our enemies.

And that stops us right in our tracks when we start to say things like Christians have a purpose in life and non-Christians don’t.  That is just not a Christian thing to say.  The Christian way to live is to realize instead that much of what passes for ‘god’ in the world is the version that is angry, vengeful, competitive, demanding, and arbitrarily powerful.  In contrast to that, Christians embody in our everyday lives the surprise of God’s love, because we are the people who say, Do not be afraid.  God is a gift.  If Elijah can enter Jezebel country and say this to a widow, if Jesus rises from the dead and says this to the disciples who abandoned him, then we must say this in how we treat colleagues who annoy us, parents we think are controlling our lives, politicians with whom we disagree, friends who have betrayed us, and people for whom we think we don’t have time.  Instead of criticizing them and excluding them, we say with our lives, Do not be afraid.  God is a gift.  After all, that’s what Jesus says to us, and we have received his gift of life.


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