The Reading of the Word

This morning, we return to the Gospel of Mark, as we come to Mark 2:18-22.

Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.

2:18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him [that is, to Jesus], “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]

Let’s pray …

Prayer of Illumination

Lord, we do believe that your word

is firmly fixed forever, with you, in the heavens.

Your faithfulness endures to all generations,

you have made this world and it stands as you will it to.

Lord, as your people, help us to never forget your precepts,

Because by them you have given us life.

Lord, we are yours, save us,

for we have sought your ways.

Grant us life now through this your word.

In Jesus’s name. Amen

[Based on Psalm 119:89, 90, 93, 94]


As we reflect on our text this morning, I think three things emerge. We see:

  • a revelation in the past
  • an understanding of our present, and
  • a picture of the future.

A Revelation in the Past

So the first thing we see here – the immediate thing we see here is a revelation in the past.

And to grasp that, we need to wrestle with the details of Jesus’s statements in this passage.

Fasting & Feasting: Knowing the Times

People came to Jesus with a question. They note that the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of the Pharisees both fast. But during his earthly ministry, Jesus’s disciples did not fast. And the people want to know why.

Now, in the Hebrew Scriptures, fasting was required only one day a year: on the Day of Atonement. But the rabbis had outlined other reasons for fasting as well. Believing Jews might fast to lament a national tragedy, or as they prayed for a current crisis, or for other personal reasons. Pharisees normally fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, though this was not something they required. [Edwards, 88-89]

There is a lot that we could say about fasting – whether scheduled or in response to something that has happened … but whatever the case may be, fasting is ordinarily a response to the fact that things are not the way they should be. Fasting is a response to tragedy or brokenness in our own lives or the life of our community. Fasting is a response of repentance in light of our sinfulness. Fasting, even as a discipline for spiritual growth, is a practice that acknowledges that we do not yet depend on the Lord as we should. Fasting is ordinarily a response to the fact that things are not the way they are supposed to be.

And in our text, the people want to know why those who are with Jesus do not fast.

And Jesus’s response is that they do not fast, because they are with him.

That is, essentially, the point of verse nineteen. Jesus says: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.”

In contrast to the image of fasting, Jesus evokes a scene of feasting – the scene of a wedding.

One commentator writes: “A wedding celebration in a Jewish village normally lasted [three to seven days]. Friends and guests had no responsibility but to enjoy the festivities. There was an abundance of food and wine, as well as song, dance, and fun both in the house and on the street. Even rabbis were expected to desist from Torah instruction and join in the celebration with their students. […] Any thought of fasting at such a moment is out of the question!” [Edwards, 89]

In the time of a wedding, fasting is unheard of. And Jesus says here that anyone who expects those who are with him to fast, have also seriously misunderstood the time and the situation they are in. It is not a time of fasting and lament, but a time of feasting and celebration.

But what is it that determines the times? What is it that determines whether it is a time for fasting or feasting?

Well, verses nineteen and twenty make it clear: It is the presence of the bridegroom.

The Identity of Jesus

And we can miss this … but Jesus’s identification of himself as the bridegroom would likely have been striking to his original audience. It’s a disruptive statement.

Because in the Old Testament – in the Hebrew Scriptures – the bridegroom of Israel was not a human leader … it was not a human king … but it was God himself – it was Yahweh, the God of Israel.

In identifying himself as the bridegroom, Jesus is suggesting that he himself is God – he is Yahweh. [Edwards, 90]

And so the first thing at the heart of this text is the identity of Jesus. Jesus is the Bridegroom. Jesus is God the Son, come in flesh to his people.

The Presence of Jesus

But, of course, our text isn’t just about who Jesus is. It is also about where Jesus is. It goes on to focused on the presence of Jesus.

Because the presence of Jesus is the presence of the divine Bridegroom of the people of God. And so the most important aspect of knowing the times, is knowing where Jesus is.

When Jesus, the divine Bridegroom, is present with you, then it is not a time for fasting. It is, instead, a time for feasting and rejoicing. That is what Jesus says in verse nineteen.

And then, Jesus goes on to make the opposite point in verse twenty: that when he, the divine Bridegroom, is absent from his people, then that is a time for fasting and lament.

And so, Jesus is urging the people to identify the time they are in according to the presence or the absence of Jesus. And then he calls on them to respond rightly with either celebration or lament.

The right response is needed to go with the right situation. And to make that point, Jesus then tells two parables. He says: “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”

Now … many people, as they come to this text, get caught up trying to figure out, between the old and the new, which corresponds to Jesus’s ministry, which corresponds to something else – which is good, and which is bad. [See, for example, Edwards 92; Wright, 23; Bayer, 1897] But it seems to me (and as others have noticed) that, especially when combined with Luke’s account of these parables, such correlations are far from clear, which may be why contradictory interpretations can seem plausible. [Green, 249-250]

But Jesus’s more clear and obvious point seems to be less about the superiority of the old or the new … and more about the concept of incompatibility: particularly about the incompatibility of applying the wrong thing to the wrong time – of responding to an old cloth with a new patch, or trying to store new wine with old skins. It’s the incompatible response, rather than the superiority of the new or the old, that causes disaster and destruction: cloths to be torn and wineskins to be burst. [Green, 249; Edwards 92]

Jesus’s point seems to be about the error of incorrectly assessing and responding to the timing of the thing that is before us. We shouldn’t treat an old cloth as if it is new. We shouldn’t treat new wine as if it is old. Just as we shouldn’t treat times of feasting as if they are times for fasting … or vice versa.

Knowing the times and responding appropriately is what Jesus is talking about. And, he says in verses nineteen and twenty, the most important way you identify the time you are in is by noting the absence or the presence of the divine Bridegroom – of Jesus.

And during the time of his earthly ministry, Jesus was present. He walked the earth. And those around him were in the presence of the diving Bridegroom. And the proper response to that was feasting and celebration – not fasting and lament.

And so what our text reveals from the past is the identity of Jesus and the importance of his presence.

Jesus Christ is the divine Bridegroom. And when he is present, the proper response is feasting and celebration. And when he is absent, the proper response is fasting and lament.

That is the first thing we learn from our text.

An Understanding of Our Present

The second thing we learn from our text is an understanding of our present.

And Jesus himself encourages us to think about this. In verse twenty, he looks beyond his earthly ministry, and encourages us to do the same. He says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”

Now, this is a somewhat abrupt statement. We go from a picture of a wedding feast with the bridegroom present and presiding, to one of the bridegroom suddenly being “taken away.” What is Jesus getting at here?

Most immediately, this seems to point to Jesus’s death: to the three days he will be removed from his disciples after his death on the cross. [Edwards, 91]


But it would also seem that in recording this statement as he does, Mark had more in mind than that. It would seem that in recording these words, Mark was also providing a theological framework for how the church that he wrote to should understand itself.

Mark, remember, was writing to the young church, after Jesus had not only died, but risen from the dead, and then, ascended to heaven, to sit on the right hand of God the Father. Jesus himself described his ascension as “going away” from his followers. [John 16:7]

And his followers, faced with various trials and tribulations, would have acutely felt the absence of Jesus. Jesus was not physically there with them. And they faced suffering, and loss, and therefore times of fasting and lament.

As Jesus said: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”

This is a picture of the age we live in: Jesus has physically “gone away” from us. It is right for us to long for him to return [Rev 22:20]. It is right for us to lament his absence. It is right for us to acknowledge that we live in a time of fasting.

And yet … at the very same time … Jesus is also present with us … right? Which means that we also live in a time of feasting.

After all, Jesus said to his followers “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” [Matthew 18:20] He said to his disciples: “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20] And the Apostle Paul, well after Jesus had “gone away” into heaven, and even in the midst of many trials and tribulations, could say to the church in Corinth: “Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the feast.” [1 Corinthians 5:7b-8a (AMP)]

We live in an overlapping of ages. Christ is risen, he sits enthroned in heaven, he is with us by his Holy Spirit, and that is reason for celebration, and rejoicing – the proper response is feasting.

And at the very same time, Christ has gone away from us. We do not yet see the fullness of his reign here on earth. Sin and death remain. Jesus is physically absent from us. And this is reason for lament and petition – the proper response is fasting.

Here, between Christ’s comings, we live in a mixed time – a time both of feasting and of fasting. And that has a few implications.


First, it has implications for our mindset. Because in order to live rightly in this age, we need to recognize both of those truths: both the ways we live in a time of feasting and God’s presence, and the ways we live in a time of fasting and God’s absence.

And most of us struggle with at least one of those.

Some of you struggle with the reality that lamentation and fasting is called for in this age. It feels somehow wrong to you.

But things are not yet the way they are supposed to be, and we should reflect that reality. As the Apostle Paul acknowledges in Philippians 1:23, to be in this world, at this time, is in some way to be apart from Christ. And as he says in Romans 8:23, it is fitting that we groan deeply in our hearts as we wait with patience to see the Lord. Lament is appropriate. Mourning is appropriate. Fasting is appropriate.

But in our culture, many Christians struggle with this. They feel that because of God’s blessings, we should not lament. But the Bible tells a different story.

And a good way to reveal where your heart is on this – and to retrain your heart, if that is what’s needed – is to turn to the biblical psalms. The psalms are the hymnbook of God’s people – they are not just a descriptive recording of other people’s prayers, but they are a prescriptive prayer book and hymn book, that God has compiled and commended for our use: for us to take their words on our own lips.

So try to do that. Try to pray through the biblical psalms. We have been doing just that, as a congregation, for over a year now in our Sunday evening worship service: praying, typically, through one psalm each Sunday night together. Over three years we will pray through the entire psalter, and then we’ll start over again. I’d encourage you to join us on Sunday nights. And I’d also encourage you to pray through the psalms on your own. Maybe begin with one each day.

And then pay attention to your own heart and mind as you do. Because you’ll find yourself getting uncomfortable sometimes. I know I’ve noticed that myself in the congregation some Sunday nights. Some of the psalms make us uncomfortable. And one reason for that is that we, in general, are uncomfortable with lament – with prayers acknowledging loss and distress and mourning – prayers that express a sense of the absence of God. And yet, the most common type of psalm in the Bible is the lament.

The Bible calls us to acknowledge the fact that things are not the way they are supposed to be, and that God’s presence is not yet fully with us. It calls us to lament.

Do you brush that reality aside? Our text calls you to rightly recognize this aspect of the times we live in. For Christ’s followers are expected to fast when he is taken away from us.

Or maybe you do see that … but you struggle on the other end. Maybe you see the brokenness, you see the sense of absence, you see the reasons for fasting … but you don’t see the fact that even now, in another sense, by his Spirit, Christ is with us. You don’t see that, because Christ has died, and Christ has risen, and Christ will come again, we have reason to keep the feast.

If that is you, then you are called on to recognize the goodness of the age we live in: the grace of God to his people, the truth of what he has done for us, the reality of his presence with us, the ways his kingdom is advancing, and the fact that Christ will come again and make all things new. That is the gospel. And that is reason for rejoicing. That is reason for celebration. That is reason for a feast.

We must, in our hearts and minds, hold on to both these truths: that this is an age both of fasting and of feasting. That is the time we live in. That is the present age.


And that should lead us to certain practical steps as well. Our lives should be marked by literal fasting, and literal feasting.

Our practices not only express our hearts, but they shape them. And both fasting and feasting serve as expressions of our hearts and minds, and training for our hearts and minds.

This is why the traditional Church calendar has both seasons of fasting and seasons of feasting. We have both Lent and Easter. We have both Advent and Christmas.

In a similar way, though Sundays are rightly regarded as feast days, it is also right that within our worship here each morning, we have both lament and celebration: both a time of mourning and a time of feasting.

Every week we get down on our knees together and we lament, and mourn our sins in our prayer of confession. And every week we are invited again together to the table of the Lord, for a foretaste of his feast.

But fasting and feasting should be part of our personal and family lives as well.

We should acknowledge, and openly lament those occasions in this life where we see the brokenness of this world, and the absence of God’s shalom. We should acknowledge and openly mourn for our sin, and our faithlessness. We should be a people who fast. For Christ is not yet fully with us, and so neither we nor this world are yet what we are supposed to be.

At the same time, our lives should be marked by feasting and celebration. For we have much to celebrate. We should be a people who are known for gathering together in celebration, to acknowledge God’s goodness to us in our creation, our preservation, and all the blessings of this life – but above all for God’s immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. [BCP]

Our text gives us an understanding of our present: that we live in an age of both feasting and fasting – of both celebration and lamentation – and this should be reflected in our theology, in our outlook on life, and in our individual and communal practices, as God’s people.

A Picture of the Future

Third, and finally, our text gives us a picture of the future. … Really, two pictures of the future.

At its core, our text is about the implications of the absence and the presence of God. And as such, it points us to two stark eternal realities.

On the last day, Christ will return. He will restore our broken world, and he will be present in the fullest sense. And we – every one of us – will respond to that reality, just as we must respond to it now.

And just as is the case now, in this age, some will respond rightly: with love and rejoicing … and some will respond wrongly: with hostility and rejection.

And from there, we will each go our way. And so all humanity will, in the end, spend the endless age to come either in the eternal presence of God, or in the eternal absence of God.

In this way, as we reflect on the implications of God’s presence, and God’s absence, our text gives us both a warning and a promise about the future.

A Warning of Eternal Absence

First, our text holds out for us a warning of God’s eternal absence.

For all who ultimately reject the living God, their future will be one of God’s eternal absence, and thus it will be an eternity of mourning, lamentation, and fasting.

But whereas the biblical fasts and mournings and lamentations of faith are carried out with the hope of redemption – this eternal fast, and eternal lament, of those who reject the Lord, is made without faith … and ends only in desolation.

For it is the experience of the eternal absence of God.

The poet John Donne wrote: “When all is done, the hell of hells, the torment of torments, is the everlasting absence of God … to fall out of the hands of the living God, is a horror beyond our expression, beyond our imagination.” [Quoted in Wilson, 168]

It is this that the Bible warns us about. It is this that the Bible calls hell.

Now, people who don’t believe in God … or don’t take their faith that seriously … or who don’t like the God of the Bible and try to edit him into someone different – they tend to think this idea is a bit silly. Of course, if when they die, it turns out there is an afterlife, they would want to be at the feast, in the presence of their Maker – not cast out apart from him. Who in their right mind would choose the eternal absence of God, rather than the eternal presence of God?

To that question, the Bible’s answer is: People like you. People who even now prefer to live as if the God of the Bible does not exist.

Author N.D. Wilson describes a conversation he had with some of his fellow students back in grad school. They were at an old pub – a mixed group of Christians and non-Christians. And then, Wilson writes, suddenly, one young woman, an atheist, turned to the Christians:

“‘Do you think I’m going to Hell?’ [she asked]

“‘Yes,’ my Catholic friend said without hesitation. He looked around. ‘I do.’

“People laughed, [Wilson writes,] not because it was a joke, but because he was serious and unembarrassed. He was never embarrassed – an attribute I admire.

“She looked at me and leaned forward, waiting for the Protestant version.

“‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Don’t you want to?’

“‘What do you mean?’ [she asked] […] ‘Why would I want to go to Hell?’

“‘God is who He is.’ [I said.] ‘Do you want to be with Him?’

“Hell is voluntary. Would you like to go?” [Wilson, 174-175]

Wilson is getting at the reality that, if you don’t like or don’t accept the God of the Bible now … then what makes you think you will love or accept him when you see him face to face?

He writes:

“I do not pretend to know what manner of Hell waits on those who do not desire God. And it will be a question of desire, not belief. Dislike, not disbelief. The dead will stand before Him, still living in another way. There will be no ignorance then. There will be no confusion, no distant uneducated native […] who never heard the good news and is surprised to find himself beneath an eternal ax. All will believe in God in the end, and all will be justly judged by the standard they themselves used to judge others.

“Even the demons believe. The demons saw the cross. The demons remember Easter.

“Heaven or Hell is about love and hate. Do you love God or do you hate Him? Is He foul in your nostrils? […] Then Hell is for you. Hell is for you because God is kind and reserves a place for those who loathe Him to the end, an eternal exile. […]

You can have a place apart from the presence of God. But “Hell will be hell.” You will hate it. But you’ll have no desire to leave. Because any step away from hell would be a step closer to God.

To imagine what the eternal absence of God is like, you might begin imagining what people, even now, are like when they are left to themselves, and to their own corrupt desires and devices. In history and the news, and maybe in your own life, you have caught glimpses of that. But only glimpses. Because in this life, even in the worst cases, God restrains people’s evil. But there – in hell – people will be truly left to themselves. It will be an awful place. But many people will hate God – God as he truly not God as they imagine him – they will hate God, and God’s presence even more than they hate that place. [Wilson, 176-179]

That is one picture – one option – for the future: the eternal absence of God. Hell.

Billions will choose it. Billions already have chosen it.

A Promise of Eternal Presence

The other option – the other picture implied by our text – is the possibility of eternal presence: of living forever in the presence of God.

And what’s required of us to receive that is not perfection, but only faith. All we need is a believing desire to be with God as he is, and a trust in his promises to take us there.

And even that desire and that trust need not be perfect – for nothing we do in this life is perfect.

And even if you, this morning, only feel that you want to want him – that you desire to desire him … that you long to love him, even that is probably a sign that he is already at work in your heart. [Wilson, 180]

Embrace that. Turn to him more fully. Ask him to help you to want him more. Ask him to help you love him more. Ask him to help you trust him more. Jesus feasted with sinners that had turned to him. The eternal feast will be no different.

Begin by asking for his help. And then thank him for all he offers you by grace – including his presence with you even now. If you have wandered from him, then return to him, for he will embrace you once more with his special presence.

And his special presence is what is most important. Because heaven, paradise, the New Heaven, and the New Earth, is the promised eternal presence of God. God’s presence is what is at the center of it all. For there, God will truly be with us, forever, for all eternity. That is the eternal feast. That is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

We struggle to imagine this – and that’s understandable. If we’re honest, the thought of heaven in our imagination, can quickly begin to feel a bit static. How can heaven really be heaven for an eternity? How can it engage us, and give us true joy forever – for billions upon billions of years? Won’t we get board?

Many people have wondered that. In fact, a couple years ago, a sitcom called The Good Place, explored, in its own very secular way, that very question: Everything gets boring. No feast lasts forever. So how could heaven really remain satisfying for an eternity?

And the Bible’s answer, is the thing that we keep coming back to this morning. The answer is: the presence of God.

Theologian Derek King unpacks it like this – he writes:

“The mind-bending concept of ‘forever’ is daunting because at some point there will be nothing new to experience. If ‘variety is the spice of life’ then eternity will inevitably and eventually become bland. However utterly humungous the sheer volume of activities available to humanity may be, eternity is longer.”


“If heaven is being fully and finally in the presence of God, and being fully and finally perfected, then the fear is that existence will at some point become static. To be sure, even such an existence would be more fulfilling than our minds can now imagine, but a largely unchanging eternity is still an unnerving thought.”

Christians, King explains, have wrestled with that unnerving thought from very early on. One important example of that wrestling is Gregory of Nyssa – a fourth-century church father from Cappadocia (present day Turkey).

“In one of his more interesting theological moves, [King writes,] Gregory articulated a doctrine of epektasis, a Greek word that means ‘moving ahead’ or ‘making progress.’ He references the Apostle Paul, who wrote: ‘this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead…’ (Philippians 3:13). In Greek, ‘straining forward’ is a form of the word epektasis.

“Generally, [King continues,] Christians tend to think of the Christian life as a kind of epektasis—a straining forward or moving ahead. Our lives are ones of moral improvement, spiritual growth, and, most importantly, a deepening relationship with God and others. Yet, for many, this epektasis is temporary and ultimately very earthly—we grow and grow until we are fully and finally in the presence of God.

“However, Gregory extended epektasis into eternity.

“For him, the reason is simple: God is infinite. While many affirm it, few appreciate the implications. It means there is truly no end to God—temporal or spatial limitations are nonsensical in the divine presence.


“From this, Gregory reasons that there is no such thing as being fully and finally in God’s presence. There is always more to God than our finite minds, hearts, souls, and bodies can comprehend, feel, experience, or be in the presence of. He says God desires for us ‘unending growth’ for an ‘ascent into higher things’—or what Jean Daniélou described as ‘a continual discovery of what is new.’

“Gregory invites us, then, [King writes,] to imagine a very different picture of heaven. It’s a heaven that is never fully static. It is, rather, eternal growth into God. We are ever receiving more and more of what God is offering. And God, because of his infinite nature, can infinitely give himself to be known and received by us. […] We never reach the summit of God’s perfection, but are caught up in an endless cycle of having our desires satisfied in God only to find, in that very satisfaction, the desire for more of him.”

This is, in a sense, what all true feasting really points to: The eternal process of moving further and further into God’s presence, being satisfied by him over and over again, just to desire, and seek, and then find, even more of him.

And all of this plays out for eternity, and not just for us as isolated individuals – but for us together, as the people of God – as the Bride of Christ. Together, as God’s people, in the New Heaven and the New Earth, we will journey deeper and deeper into God’s presence, for all eternity.

That is the promise of the eternal feast that is held out for all who trust in God. That is what the eternal presence of God will be like for God’s people.

Even explained that way, we cannot really wrap our heads around it. But we can trust that it is so. We can trust that life in the New Heaven and the New Earth – that the eternal feast of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb really is that wonderful.

And what could we want more than that?


Our text this gives us a revelation from the past, as Jesus Christ is identified as God the Son, the divine Bridegroom of the people of God, whose very presence is the presence of God.

It gives us an understanding of our present – that we live in a mixed age of light and darkness, of presence and absence, of the already and the not yet – of fasting and of feasting.

And it gives us a picture of the future: a stark split in destinies that lies before us, with a warning of the eternal absence of God for all who will not accept him and embrace him as he truly is … and a promise of the eternal presence of God for all who do respond to him with trust and love.

Let us then, respond rightly. Let us see Jesus for who he is. Let us rejoice over the gifts of the gospel. Let us lament over the brokenness that remains in us and in this world. And let us set our hearts, in faith, on the hope of spending eternity in the presence of our God, every growing closer to him, along with all of God’s people.

It is his presence that will make eternity all that it should be.

For he is the divine Bridegroom. And we are his people.


 This sermon draws on material from:

Bayer, Hans. Introduction and notes to Mark in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.

Horne, Mark. The Victory According to Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.

King, Derek. “Heaven Without God?: How A Fourth Century Theologian Solves the Dilemma of NBC’s ‘The Good Place.’ Transpositions: Theology, Imagination and the Arts. November 20, 2020.

Wilson, N.D. Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

Wright, N.T. Mark for Everyone. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

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