“Evangelism & Sacrifice, Pt. 2: Perspective & Possibilities”
July 30, 2023
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
The Reading of the Word
It’s good to be back with you this morning. We return, today, to Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, and to the text we looked at a few weeks ago.
As we said then, at this point in the letter Paul is updating the church in Philippi about his affairs: about what’s going on with him, and what’s most important to him.
With that in mind, we turn now to Philippians 1-12-18.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
1:12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
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, like the psalmist,
When we think of the direction you give us through your ancient word,
we take comfort, Lord.
Let your word be now our joy and delight,
as we attend to it here in your house,
so that we would remember your revelation as we go from here, day and night,
that we may cling to and follow it.
Give us that great blessing,
of walking in your ways, by the power of your Spirit,
for we ask it in Jesus’s name. Amen
[Based on Psalm 119:52, 54-56]
As we said a few weeks ago, the themes that emerge from our text this morning are those of evangelism and sacrifice.
And what we see in this text is not so much the techniques of evangelism – we see more of that in the Book of Acts – but what we see here is more the underlying convictions in Paul’s heart that enabled him to tell others about Jesus, even when he knew it might cost him something.
And so, in a sense, our text is not about the actions of evangelism as much as it is about what happens one step before those actions – the dynamics in the heart or mind of a faithful Christian that enables them to share their faith even when there is a risk involved. And so that will be our main focus this morning as well.
When it comes to the act of evangelism – to technique or approach, as we said a few weeks ago, on one level, evangelism takes wisdom. Knowing when to tell someone of our faith … knowing how to tell someone of our faith … knowing the best way to show Christ forth with our words or our deeds often takes wisdom. Sometimes we need to boldly proclaim our faith. Other times we need to live faithfully and be ready to give an honest and open answer when they ask about the hope that we have. Still other times we may be called to simply let it be known that we are committed Christians, and then to live loving and faithful lives before others.
There are many resources out there to help us think through how we could go about sharing our faith – as I’ve mentioned before, Jerram Barrs’s book The Heart of Evangelism is one I’ve found especially helpful, as Barrs takes the Apostle Paul as his model for how we tell others about Jesus.
So we should acknowledge, on one level, that evangelism takes wisdom and thoughtfulness.
But then also, on another level, evangelism is also very simple. It’s simply letting others know about Jesus – telling them, in ways that may be big or ways that may be small, who Jesus is and what he has done. That’s all.
And our biggest challenge with evangelism – and the challenge our text exposes – is usually less about technique and more about fear or avoidance. It is less rooted in the mechanics of evangelism, and more rooted in the risks of evangelism – the fact that evangelism may indeed cost us something … it may lead to sacrifice.
We see that clearly here in Paul’s life – he is in prison because of his work of spreading the gospel. That reality permeates our passage.
Now the risks and sacrifices we face in our setting are not the same as the Apostle Paul’s – that is certainly true … but there are still real risks, and there may be real costs.
We can tend towards all or nothing thinking when it comes to this cost – either over-dramatizing what it takes to share our faith in our setting, or completely dismissing the potential costs. But as is often the case, the truth usually lies somewhere in between.
And to see this better, we need to consider the reality of social dynamics and relationships in our lives. Because what we risk in sharing our faith, most often, is a loss in social status or a loss of standing in a relationship. And those costs are not nothing. Those costs can be very real. And those losses can sometimes cut deeper than a legal threat can cut in our lives. Because they violate not a law, but a social code.
Broadcaster “Red” Barber put this well. He said: “A [cultural] code is harder to break than an actual law. A law is impersonal. Often a man breaks a law, is clever enough to get away with it, and people think he is a smart fellow. But when you break an unwritten law, a code of conduct, you are damned, castigated, banished from the club so to speak. You are a renegade, a scoundrel, an ingrate, a pariah.” [Breslin, 55]
Often, breaking an unspoken social or cultural code can lead to much more immediate and unavoidable costs in our lives than breaking an actual law. And we do have unwritten codes in our culture about many things. And one such code in our culture is that you don’t talk about things of ultimate importance. There’s a certain level of depth you can go with people … but you don’t go any deeper than that. It’s fine to talk about trivialities – to keep things to entertainment or hobbies. It’s okay to talk about work … or the weather … or our latest home improvement project … or maybe the general challenges of dating, or raising kids, or going to school – depending on our stage of life. Sometimes it’s acceptable to talk about politics, though that can get a bit more complicated. And each of those topics are important – and each may be in some ways linked or adjacent to topics of ultimate importance … but they are not themselves matters of ultimate importance. But we rarely go any deeper than those topics. And one major reason for that is that our culture’s unspoken code of social acceptability places a special prohibition on bringing up topics of ultimate importance: topics of what it means to be a human being, of Who made us, of what our ultimate purpose is, of eternity, of who God is, and what we owe to God, and of how all that should play out in our day to day lives. These are the kind of questions that our cultural code of conduct places an unwritten – and often unspoken – ban on. And we tend to follow that ban – even to internalize it into our own hearts.
And if you think I’m wrong, just consider this: When is the last time you’ve asked another human being the question: “So … how is your relationship with God right now?” And I’m not even talking about evangelism here – I’m asking, if you are a Christian, when is the last time you’ve simply asked another Christian about their relationship with God in a direct and personal way? When’s the last time you’ve asked even a close Christian family member that kind of question? And then, when’s the last time you’ve asked someone outside your family that kind of direct question? As Christians, it would seem that that would be one of the most important questions we ask one another – one of the central topics of discussion for us. But it’s not.
I’m sure there are several reasons for that, but one is that we live in a culture with a certain code: you don’t bring up spiritual things … you don’t open up topics of ultimate importance in conversation with other people – especially not in a personal way. And we’ve internalized that cultural code, so much so that it shapes not only how we interact with non-Christians, but even how we interact with one another.
And if we’re afraid to ask one another those kinds of questions, then it’s no wonder that we may struggle to speak of ultimate things and spiritual matters when it comes to those outside the Church.
The Bible tells us that all Christians are called to make their faith known to those around them, so that others too might enter into a right relationship with God. That’s the commission that Christ gave to us, as his Church.
As we’ve said before, the goal with that is not to be tactless. It’s not to be brash. It’s not to be unnecessarily offensive. Biblical evangelism calls for wisdom – including the wisdom to evaluate a person and a situation, and determine the best way to demonstrate Christ’s gospel to them in word or deed.
But even so, if we are being faithful to that calling in that context, it will mean taking on certain social risks … and even making certain social sacrifices.
And we often struggle with taking those risks. But Paul was clearly willing to take them. And so, once again this morning, we want to consider what we learn about Paul here, and ask what it is that he has, and that we lack, that leads to such different outcomes in our lives when it comes to evangelism and outreach.
And as we look at this particular passage, three components of Paul’s relationship to evangelism and sacrifice emerge:
- First, we see Paul’s priorities,
- Second, we see what Paul knows of his perspective,
- And third, we see what Paul believed was possible.
Now, the last time we looked at this text, a few weeks ago, we focused on Paul’s priorities. This morning we will focus on his perspective and what he believed was possible.
And this morning I want to argue that it’s often a failure to recognize the limitations of our own perspective, and a failure to imagine what is possible with God, that leads to our hesitation, and our avoidance when it comes to sharing the gospel with other people.
Let’s start by considering the limitations of our own perspective.
For whatever reason, at some point, YouTube decided I was the kind of person who would be interested in videos that feature audio recordings of conversations between airplane pilots and airport control towers when they’re arguing about something. And, funny enough, they were right. I don’t know what that says about me, but there it is. So I found myself listening to a few of the videos it suggested. And usually the conversation – really the dispute – followed a similar pattern. A pilot takes some sort of action, because of how the situation looks from his perspective, rather than following the directions of the control tower. In some cases they set their speed differently than they’ve been told to on their approach to the airport. In a different, more distressing video, the pilot lands on a runway without the direction or approval of the tower. And when things like that happen, the control tower gets very angry, because the pilot didn’t defer to, or look for direction from, the tower. And somewhere in the video it often explains why the tower got so upset – that there were other factors behind the control tower’s direction that the pilot was unaware of. The pilot set a certain approach speed, but the tower was factoring in other planes in a certain way that required a different speed. The runway looked clear to the pilot, but the tower could see that there were actually two vehicles on the runway.
Now … I know this is a dangerous illustration to use with so many airplane pilots in the congregation, but assuming that that’s a right perspective on what’s happening in these videos, the problem becomes clear: The pilot, from their place, in their plane, has a limited perspective. They don’t see all that is going on, but only a slice of it all. And so, from the pilot’s perspective, the instruction from the tower may not make a lot of sense. It may seem unnecessary or even foolish. And so, in those videos, the pilot makes a decision based on what they can see rather than based on what the control tower tells them to do.
But the results of that can be disastrous. Because the pilot’s perspective is very limited … while the control tower’s perspective is much more complete.
And when it comes to evangelism, I think we can often be like the renegade pilots featured in those videos. We know the Bible. We know that Christ has called us to make disciples of all nations. We know that we are called by God to tell others about Jesus. And we find ourselves in a situation where those commandments would seem to apply. Maybe there is an obvious opportunity simply to acknowledge that we are Christians. Maybe we are asked a question where it seems like we should be honest about the reason for the hope and direction we have in life. Maybe it’s a situation where we have built a relationship with someone, and this feels like the moment where we are called to gently, but confidently, speak some spiritual truth into their lives. The directions from God – from our control tower, if you will – seem clear.
But then we look at the situation from our own limited perspective. This person doesn’t seem to have any real spiritual interest, we tell ourselves. The costs of sharing our faith seems too great, we tell ourselves. We know that in this kind of situation, God calls us to be honest about our faith with others. But clearly we can see the situation better, we tell ourselves. Clearly we know best. Clearly we shouldn’t follow those directions here and now. And so we change course. We ignore the directions we’ve been given.
We may not think of it in such stark terms, but that is often what we do. And when we do that, we fail to appreciate the limitations of our perspective. We fail to acknowledge that while we might see the outside of someone’s life, the Lord knows their heart. We fail to appreciate that while we may see a small slice of someone’s life, the Lord sees it all. We fail to hear the Lord’s commands to tell others of him, in light of the fact that he sees far more of each situation than we do.
And because of the gap in perspective between us and God, we are called to heed the Lord’s commands, even when we can’t see the logic behind them, from our limited vantage point.
And that conviction has clearly been at work in the life of the Apostle Paul. Paul puts forward the reality that while the Philippians may not have seen it coming, and while Paul himself could not have initially seen it coming, even so, God has been at work through Paul’s efforts, and even through his sacrifices and hardships, in unexpected ways – in ways that Paul himself could not see until recently. That is the thought behind verse twelve: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,” he writes. Paul didn’t get himself arrested because he saw how it would advance the gospel. Rather, he was faithful to the Lord’s commands, and he trusted that God knew what he was doing when he gave those commands, even when Paul himself couldn’t see how his obedience would lead to the advance of the gospel.
By the time Paul is writing to the Philippians, he sees some of what God was doing in all that.
But think about if Paul had written this letter a little bit earlier. Think about if he had written it when he was first settling into his imprisonment in Rome. At that point, Paul didn’t see any results of his imprisonment. But he did, it would seem, even then, trust that there was more going on than he could see. He did trust that the Lord had a greater perspective than he did, and so the Lord’s commands outranked Paul’s personal assessment of things. And so Paul did what the Lord commanded him to do. He spoke of Christ, even when he couldn’t see what good might come of it.
And we are called to the same thing. Understanding can help with obedience … but it’s not necessary for it. The airplane pilot doesn’t need to understand why the control tower has directed them to a specific runway in order to obey the direction. And we don’t need to understand why God has commanded something in a specific situation in order to do it.
Because in every situation – no matter how much is visible to us at the moment – if we trust that God sees more, and has a broader and deeper perspective than we do – that he is at work even if we can’t see it – if we believe that is true, then we can be faithful to his commands, even if we don’t understand why he gave them to us in a particular situation.
That applies to all areas of life, of course. But it especially applies to evangelism. We are good at coming up with reasons why the call to speak of, or live out our faith doesn’t really apply to one specific situation or another … but really all we can say is that we can’t see why God would have us share our faith here or there. But God sees more of what’s going on than we do.
That’s the first thing for us to consider this morning: our limited perspective and God’s omniscient perspective when it comes to the wisdom of his callings on our lives.
That then leads to our second point.
Because second, Paul points us to what is possible with God.
A second theme we see in our text this morning is that part of our struggle with evangelism is that we often lack a faithful imagination. Paul challenges us on this front by reminding us what is possible with God.
When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, and told her that she would give birth to the Messiah, she asked how this could be possible, since she was a virgin. And the angel answered her. And at the end of his answer, he said to her: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” [Luke 1:37]
As Christians, we confess that we believe that. But it’s much easier to confess that truth than to actually live as if we believe it. Living it out is much harder. But in our passage this morning we see how Paul lives that truth out. And he does this by highlighting five things that are possible with God, but which we often fail to imagine as possible.
First, Paul points to his faith that God is able to work without him.
And here’s what I mean. Being faithful to Christ’s calling to speak openly and boldly about his faith led to Paul being arrested, and therefore blocked from a number of ministry opportunities. While Paul was never unnecessarily offensive in preaching the gospel … still, you could imagine someone making the pragmatic case to Paul that he should be a little less open about his faith … a little less bold in how he spoke about Jesus … because otherwise, Paul might lose other opportunities to advance the gospel. Paul being imprisoned limits what’s possible, or so the logic goes. And that logic would make sense … if God was dependent on Paul to work. But Paul had a confident faith that God was able to work without him. Paul had a sanctified imagination about not just what God could do with him, but also what God could do without him. He had faith that God did not need him. And that actually enabled him to serve Christ more passionately, and take bigger risks for Christ’s kingdom.
When we know that being faithful to Christ may threaten opportunities for further outreach or ministry, we do not need to shy back or compromise our faithfulness to Jesus in order to gain or maintain a role in the world, as if God is unable to work in that place without us there. No – we can be resolute in our faith because we trust that whatever may happen to us, God is able to keep working in that situation, even without us.
And so we don’t need to hide our faith. We don’t need to obscure what we believe about Jesus. We don’t need to shy away from those moments when we know we are called to speak of Christ. Because even if our faithfulness then results in rejection, or a loss of social standing with an individual or a group, we believe that God is able to continue to work in the lives of those people, even if it’s not through us.
Maybe the person will pull back when they hear about our faith. Maybe it will strain the relationship. But also, maybe your relationship with them is just one step in what God is doing in their lives. God is able to use you, even if the other person pulls back from you after they learn of your faith. And more than that, he is able to use others after you, to continue to work in people’s lives. That is what Paul believed – he believed that God did not need him in order to advance the gospel, but God could work through others as well – that conviction is at the heart of verses fourteen through eighteen. And for that reason, Paul could take risks in sharing his faith. He believed that God could work without him.
Second, believing that nothing is impossible for God means that we trust that through our sacrifice, God can change the hearts of his people who are hesitant to stand up for him.
Look at verse fourteen. After mentioning what has happened to him, Paul writes: “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”
God has used Paul’s faithfulness, and his sacrifice for the gospel to inspire similar faithfulness and behaviors in others. And that was not an insignificant feat at that time.
Paul was most likely writing this letter from Rome at a time when Emperor Nero’s suspicion towards the Church was starting to run high. Hesitation to speak publicly about one’s faith was understandable – the risks to their health, wealth, freedom, and even lives were real. [Fee, 116]
But we learn here that what inspired some of those Christians to speak the gospel with courage despite those threats, was not primarily a well-reasoned argument from Paul … it was not a passionate or moving sermon. No, instead, what God used to motivate them and inspire them and give them new courage, was Paul’s imprisonment itself. God was able to use Paul’s hardships to strengthen, rather than weaken the courage of other Christians to stand up for Christ.
Are there those around you who you wish were bolder in their faith? Sometimes we fall into the mistake that convincing others that the Christian life is safe and stable is what will encourage them to cling to Christ more firmly. But in reality, it is often showing them what risk and sacrifice for the gospel looks like that will encourage and embolden them to take their faith more seriously.
That’s what happened around Paul. And the Lord is able to work through us in similar ways.
So, second, believing that nothing is impossible for God means believing that God can use our sacrifices for him – the risks we take in sharing the gospel – to inspire even those Christians who seem weak and frightened … encouraging them to stand up for the Lord with faithfulness and boldness.
Third, believing in God’s power means believing that God can use our rivals to advance his kingdom.
That’s what Paul is writing about in verse seventeen. We spoke about this a few weeks ago, but based on other contextual comments Paul makes, it seems that the people Paul speaks about there are Christian brothers and sisters, who are preaching the true gospel, but who either have personal animosity towards Paul, or are of a rival theological camp within the broader Church. But in verse eighteen, Paul tells us that he has faith that God is working through those rivals to advance the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
And as he does, he challenges us to believe the same.
When someone leaves our church, and goes to another, can we confidently trust that God is still working in their lives through that other church … even if that other church opposes some of our cherished but still secondary teachings or practices? When we have mixed success in sharing the gospel with someone else, but another Christian ministry that looks very different from ours comes in and brings them to faith, can we rejoice, rather than feeling resentment? Can we trust that God can use different traditions and even rival traditions within the Church to draw others to himself? Can we trust that God might even use other Christians whom we find difficult to make himself known to others, and advance his kingdom?
Paul believed that God could do that. And we should as well.
And when we do, we can approach the calling to evangelism and missions, not focusing on a mental scorecard of how we stack up to our rivals … but instead we can do it with our eyes focused solely on the question of whether Christ’s kingdom is advancing in other people’s lives.
What other Christians do you tend to view as rivals? Maybe it’s a personal rival … or maybe it’s a local ministry, or a local church … or another denomination, or a subculture within our denomination – but who is it for you?
The third thing Paul tells us here is that if we are to do the work of ministry faithfully – if we are to do the work of evangelism faithfully – then we need to rejoice first in the advance of Christ’s kingdom, and to do so believing that God is able to use even our rivals to glorify himself, and draw others to him. And if we believe that, then we too will rejoice when our Christian rivals are successful.
Fourth, when it comes to rightly seeing what is possible with God, Paul tells us here that a sanctified imagination means believing that God can use even the sins of others against us to advance his gospel and his kingdom.
Look at what is happening here with Paul. The Jews and the pagan rulers have worked to arrest and now imprison Paul. Their opposition to Paul is deeply sinful. But the result is that many in Rome, and many within Caesar’s household, have come to know Christ. The sinful work of unbelievers has led to salvation for others.
And a similar dynamic is at work even in the Church. Paul here says that some are preaching out of envy. Envy is a sin. [Fee, 119] But even so, Paul makes it clear that God is using even that sinful envy to advance his kingdom.
A faithful imagination means that we believe that God can use even the sins of others against us to advance his kingdom.
And therefore we need not despair when others sin against us. Whether it’s those outside the Church who are opposing or hindering or slandering the work of the Church … or it’s those within the Church who are ministering in ways inconsistent with the gospel … or even when we see our own mixed motives for ministry in our heart – while we always oppose and resist such sin, we need not despair when we see its presence, because we know that God is always bigger and stronger than sin, and he is able to use even it to advance his kingdom.
God can use even the sins of others against us to advance his gospel and his kingdom.
Fifth and finally, Paul reminds us here that believing that nothing is impossible with God means that we believe that God can use our efforts, sacrifices, and struggles to change even the hearts of those we’d least expect.
Look again at verse thirteen. Paul says: “it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”
Paul is likely referring here to the Praetorian Guard here – the emperor’s elite troops stationed in Rome. Paul would have been guarded by these troops around the clock, with troops rotating on four-hour shifts. And so Paul had access to a number of these guards, so much so that by the time he is writing he could say that the “whole imperial guard” had come to know of his imprisonment and the reason for it. [Fee, 113] And that knowledge had also spread beyond the guard, as Paul points out also mentioning “all the rest” who have learned about the reason for his imprisonment. [Fee, 114] Paul tells us that this is one of the ways that his imprisonment has “advanced the gospel” – that’s the language of evangelism. [Fee, 111]
Now … what I want to highlight is that I’m not sure the gospel would have spread in that particular place simply by Paul’s skill. Paul was, of course, an incredibly skilled writer, debater, preacher, and speaker. But it was not, at root, those skills that got his opponents’ attention. Paul doesn’t credit his skills for the advance of the gospel in verse twelve. He credits his imprisonment. The soldiers, Paul says in verse thirteen, see that his imprisonment is “for Christ.” And that is what has gotten their attention. That is what has caused the gospel to “advance” among them. It was not because of a great program or a planned presentation, but because of an unplanned struggle, hardship, and sacrifice that Paul had to make in living out the gospel that the gospel advanced in a place we would almost never expect it to advance: among the servants of Caesar in first century pagan Rome.
And we should not underestimate the extent of this advance. Later on in this same letter, in chapter four, Paul will say that the other saints – the other Christians – in Rome send their greetings to the Christians in Philippi. And he will highlight (in Philippians 4:22) that those believers sending their greetings from Rome include “all the saints […] especially those of Caesar’s household.” [Fee, 114] There were saints – true believers – in Caesar’s household. It would seem that among other things, God had used Paul’s faithful imprisonment, to make believers within the household of Caesar – one of the last places we’d expect to find it.
And just as the Holy Spirit worked through Paul’s faithfulness and sacrifice, so he can work through ours.
Our skillful words may get the attention of those around us. Our acts of kindness may get the attention of those around us. But many other times, it will be those moments when we risk the very things that our culture values so much, in order to make Christ known – it will be those moments that get other people’s attention. It will disrupt their paradigms and their expectations. It will lead them to wonder who this God is who you are taking such risks for. God often uses such wonder to draw others to himself.
We can believe that, when we sanctify our imagination with faith, and live out our belief that all things are possible with God.
Brothers and sisters, who has God called you to make Jesus known to? Acknowledge that the risks and sacrifices you fear in that relationship may be real – there is an unspoken code in our culture not to speak of such ultimate things. But then, even if you doubt whether speaking of Christ can be of any real value in that person’s life, remind yourself that God has a better perspective on them than you do. And then look for the right opportunity to make Christ known. And as you do, trust that what is impossible by your feeble efforts, is possible with God.
This sermon draws on material from:
Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Philippians. 40th Anniversary Edition. Translated by James W. Leitch. Introductory Essays by Bruce L. McCormack and Francis B. Watson. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Breslin, Jimmy. Branch Rickey. Penguin Lives. New York, NY: Penguin, 2011.
Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Touchstone, 1943 (1996 Edition)
McDonough, Sean M. Introduction and notes to Philippians in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Note: In my preaching I often cite and draw from a range of sources, which includes material from Christians within my theological tradition, Christians outside my theological tradition (in keeping with our church’s core value of “Reformed Catholicity”), and also (following the Apostle Paul’s example in Acts 17) non-Christians who are well outside of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. And so, when I cite an author or a source, that citation should not be understood or construed as me necessarily agreeing with, endorsing, or recommending to others anything else from that author or source, except for what I explicitly say I agree with, endorse, or recommend. When engaging with different materials and thinkers, all Christians must exercise wisdom and discernment to determine what is helpful, appropriate, and edifying for each person, taking into account their current needs, wisdom, and spiritual maturity.
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