CDPCKL · The First Word: Love (Exodus 20:1-3)

The First Word: Love (Exodus 20:1-3)

In the opening words of the bible we are introduced to God as a Trinity: the God, the eternally breathing Spirit, and the eternally speaking Word. 

And shortly afterward we are introduced to a man and a woman living in a garden in perfect fellowship with that trinitarian God. He is their Heavenly Father, and their eternal Breath of life, and their eternally speaking Word: he is everything to them. And they are innocent as children: they know nothing else but the love of God. 

But then the man and the woman meet someone who tells them there are really two kinds of love available to them: the love of God — which they have already experienced — and the love of self. And this exciting new kind of love really catches their imagination. They realize there is a whole new world of experience out there just waiting for them. And they take it: they decide to give self-love a try. 

And two things happen in that moment: 

First, the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked. Until that point they had only known the love of the other, the love of God and the love of spouse — like when the man first saw the woman, for instance: all of his attention was drawn to her, his whole being was consumed with delight at what he saw. But self-love — by definition — turns the attention to the self. And so the man and the woman have the new and exciting experience of looking at themselves and seeing for the first time just how incomplete they really are. Instead of seeing themselves through the love in the other person’s eyes, they get to see themselves through their own self-critical eyes, and it occurs to them that they are not actually very lovely. 

And suddenly they are ashamed. 

The second thing that happens is this — quoting now from Genesis, Chapter 3 verse 8 — the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day. 

But that is really quite a weak translation of that verse. A more direct translation would say it like this: the man and his wife heard the thunder of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the windstorm of the day. In other words, what the man and the woman experienced was the arrival of their Heavenly Father carried upon the stormwind of his Spirit, preceded by the thunder of his Word: the blackest, most terrifying storm imaginable. For the first time, they realized that their gentle Father was also the Almighty Judge over all creation, consumed with the need to bring proper justice, proper order back to the earth. 

And so suddenly they are afraid. 

And from that moment onward everything changes. Those two emotions — shame and fear — come to dominate their lives, and the lives of all their descendants. 


Well, when the man and the woman chose the love of self over the love of God, they were trying to become more like God in his self-love. 

The problem with that is this: when God practices self-love it is not a sin. First, because he is complete, self-contained, and therefore worthy of self-love. Second, because God’s self-love is also other-love. Remember, the true God is a Trinity: Father, Spirit, and Word, One God in Three Persons. As each Person loves the other he is also loving himself in a perfectly balanced eternal dance of selflessly-selfish love. 

But when the man and his wife practiced self-love it was a sin. First, because they were not complete and self-contained; they were not worthy of love. Second, because their self-love was totally selfish; their marriage was not yet mature enough for their self-love and their other-love to be properly balanced as it is within the Trinity. 

Okay. But how does that lead to shame and fear? 

Because God is unlimited, therefore his capacity for love is unlimited; because he is the Only Unconditional Being, his love is the only unconditional love. But the man and the woman were limited, so their capacity for love was limited. Because they were conditional creatures, their love was also conditional. So when they turned away from loving God most to loving themselves more, they exchanged God’s unconditional love for their own conditional love; they exchanged God’s unlimited love for their own limited love. 

And when love became conditional, it became something that must be earned by those who know they do not deserve it — this is the root of all shame. When love became limited, it became a commodity that must be collected, and reserved; it became something that can be lost — this is the root of all fear. 

Basically, this is what happened: when the man and the woman chose the love of self over the love of God, they chose the worship of self over the worship of God. They set themselves up as gods. And they did not know it, but through this decision they actually changed worlds. They ceased to be citizens of God’s garden where love is as unlimited and unconditional as God; they became citizens of the wilderness outside, where love is as conditional and as limited as the ones doing the loving. 

And so the man and the woman were driven out of the garden into the wilderness, where their descendants built societies centered around self-love, self-worship, in a world where love is a limited and precious commodity. And in the endless competition to earn love and avoid shame and fear, mankind’s societies inevitably grew up into civilizations centered around corruption, violence, violation, murder and slavery. 

But even while all this was happening, God already had a plan running, a plan to bring mankind back into the garden of unconditional love. This plan began with the rescue of just one man and one woman — Abraham and Sarah — from the ruins of a collapsing civilization named Ur. Abraham and Sarah were chosen to produce a different kind of son: a Son of Promise, or — we could say — a Son of Unconditional Love. And they did. And then their Son of Promise named Isaac set to work building a Family of Promise which then grew into a Nation of Promise named Israel, that was then enslaved by yet another self-worshiping civilization named Egypt. 

But if you have been reading with us through the Book of Exodus, then you know that even those centuries of slavery were part of God’s greater plan to bring mankind back into the garden. He reached down and destroyed Egypt, breaking it open so he could rescue his Nation of Promise from the ruins and carry them eastward to a mountain on the far side of the wilderness. 

And just last week, as Israel gathered before the mountain, the LORD descended upon it in thunder and lightning, fire and billowing smoke. In other words, what this nation experienced was the arrival of the Almighty Father carried upon the stormwind of his Spirit, preceded by the thunder of his Word: the blackest, most terrifying storm imaginable. 

And they were afraid. 

And rightly so! Because the last time God arrived like this, the original man and woman were judged and cast out of God’s garden! And just like last time — just like the original man and woman — these men and women of Israel are not ready to meet their God. Yes, they have washed their clothes, they have abstained from sex for the last three days. But these special preparations only made them “holy” enough to approach the mountain; they are not holy enough to actually climb up and see him face-to-face. 

In fact, this is why God has descended in billowing smoke and darkness: that cloud is the veil that keeps the fire of his glory from breaking through and consuming the entire earth. 

And the reason the people are not holy enough to actually meet their Heavenly Father is because they are still citizens of the wilderness. They still live in a world where love is limited, where love must be earned and protected lest it be lost. Because of their preprogrammed shame and fear they are still self-consumed, self-protective, self-worshiping. They cannot help but practice the sin of self-love, and this disqualifies them from entering God’s presence. 

What they need is a way to restore their original citizenship in the garden. What they need is a way to restore their original vision: they need to learn to see themselves through the love in God’s eyes rather than through their own self-critical eyes. 

Well, this is just what God has come to do. 

So as the entire nation stands now trembling before the mountain, the thunder of God speaks all these words: [2] “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” 

And as the people hear these words “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt,” they are reminded of a night 600+ years earlier when God appeared before their ancestor Abraham in smoke and fire on a mountain and said, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur.” 

That sentence marked the beginning of a ceremony in which God made a covenant with Abraham. That night was the first time God ever talked to Abraham about the Son of Promise, the Son of Unconditional Love, and that was the night God sealed that promise with a covenant. 

So now the people know that this sentence, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt,” marks the beginning of a ceremony that will end with a covenant between them and God. 

But before we go on, here is a question we should probably ask: what is a covenant? How is a covenant different from a promise, or a contract, or a vow? 

Well, a covenant is a kind of promise, a kind of contract, and a covenant does contain vows. But in the bible, a covenant is a contract that defines the relationship between two parties, a contract that is sealed by a blood sacrifice, and then symbolized by a physical sign that symbolizes the central idea of that covenant. 

For instance, in Noah’s covenant, Noah sacrificed some animals, God promised to never destroy mankind with a flood, and the sign was God’s war-bow in the clouds — what we call a rainbow — which symbolizes the way God fights against death on mankind’s behalf. 

And then, in Abraham’s covenant, Abraham sacrificed some animals, God promised to provide him with a biological son, and the sign was circumcision — a purification of Abraham’s male member — which symbolized how Abraham was going to conceive a pure Son for God. 

So that is what a biblical covenant is: a contract between two parties, sealed by blood, with a memorial sign attached. 

But that is not what a biblical covenant means. Taken all together, what a covenant means is a transfer from one system to another. It marks an official change of identity and place. It is like an adoption, or a change of citizenship. 

For instance, in Noah’s covenant, Noah’s family had their citizenship officially transfered from the old creation to the new creation, from the pre-flood world to the after-flood world. 

In Abraham’ covenant, Abraham’s family was offically adopted into God’s family. Abraham ceased to be a citizen of Ur, that old, enslaving, collapsing civilization, and became a citizen of God’s eternal kingdom. 

So that is what a covenant means: it is a binding transfer from one family to another, from one nation to another, from one kingdom to another. 

Now, if you were here two weeks ago, you will remember that God asked the people if they wanted to continue in Abraham’s covenant of circumcision. And the people all answered, “Yes, we will do everything the Lord has said.” And after that God told them to prepare themselves for his arrival. 

Well, with this sentence the covenant ceremony has now begun. And right away the people understand that God is officially breaking the chains that bound them to Egypt; they understand that this covenant is going to bind them officially to God: they will be his people, just as Abraham’s family became God’s family. 

Just as he once said to Abraham, God is now saying to the nation of Israel: “Look, I love you. I want to be with you. And I have just proven that by rescuing you! 

“But,” God goes on, “it’s not enough for me to just love you, I also want you to love me. I want to be with you, but I also want you to want to be with me! So, once again, if you are willing to continue in our relationship, this is the first way I want you to love me: [3] You shall have no other gods before me.” 

But now: this is different. Isn’t it? In Abraham’s case, God said, “If we are going to have a relationship, this is what I want from you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” But now in Israel’s case God is saying, “You shall have no other gods before me.” 

So here is the question: is this the same covenant as Abraham’s, or is this a different one? 

Well, as we noticed two weeks ago when the people first agreed to this covenant, God’s relationship with Israel is already more advanced than his relationship with Abraham had been. Abraham only knew about circumcision. But Israel has learned about God’s new seven-day calendar, God’s new elder-based government, they are already enjoying benefits that Abraham never dreamed of. 

We could say it like this: Abraham’s covenant with God was the iPhone 2; this covenant is going to be the iPhone 14 Plus. Is it the same foundational architecture? Yes. Does it accomplish the same basic thing? Yes — but with so many extra features: a thousand times greater resolution, blacker blacks, whiter whites, better optics, faster processing, all that good stuff. 

Besides, even this idea of “You shall have no other gods before me” is contained within the concept of circumcision. A few minutes ago I mentioned how circumcision symbolically purified Abraham so that he could conceive a purified Son of Promise — so the idea of holiness is already there. But when Abraham circumcised his Son of Promise as an eight day old baby, this was not just a purification, it was also a dedication: Abraham was giving his son back to God. 

And if you remember the story of Abraham’s life, then you know that there was nothing more precious to him than that Son of Promise! So for Abraham to circumcise his son, and give him back to God, was Abraham’s way of saying, “My love for God is greater than my love for my son. My love for God comes first.” 

So the answer to the question “is this the same covenant?” is: yes. This is the same fundamental covenant. But this version is going to be far more explicit, far more detailed, far more developed. God told Abraham, “Every male among you shall be circumcised,” and he let Abraham figure out that this really means, “You shall have no other gods before me.” But here, 600+ years later, God is telling Abraham’s descendants directly: “This is what I want: You shall have no other gods before me.” 


So, to summarise, this is what God just said in these three verses: “I have already made you my only people. In return, now, I want to be your only God.” 

What God is offering his people, through this covenant, is the chance to transfer their citizenship from Egypt back to the garden. 

But in order for that to happen, they are going to have to give up their self-love. Their ancestors — the original man and woman — chose to set themselves up as gods, and so their citizenship was transferred to the wilderness. Now, if Israel wants to be transferred back to the garden, they are going to have to unchoose themselves as gods, and choose once again to know nothing else but the love of God. 

But how can they accomplish this? Through that original sin of self-love, shame and fear were woven into the human psyche: it is impossible for Israel to just choose to stop feeling shame and fear. And as long as they continue to experience shame and fear, they will continue to practice self-protection, self-love, self-worship. 

You see how the deadly cycle works? Human self-love produces limited love which produces shame and fear which leads to more self-love…! 

So how is it fair for God to ask the impossible: “As soon as you stop choosing conditional self-love, I will transfer your citizenship back to the garden of my unconditional love”?! How is it fair for him to say, “You change first, then I make a covenant; you become like me first, then I let you belong to me”?! 

Well, here is the good news: that is not what God is saying. Quite the opposite, actually! 

This is what God is saying to Israel: “Look, I have already chosen you and rescued you. I am about to commission a covenant that transfers your citizenship back to my world. All you have to do is say ‘yes’ — which you have already done. But after I have made you citizens of my world, I will want you to practice unchoosing self-love and choosing my love instead.” 

Is that clear? In God’s world, the covenant happens first, the change happens after; belonging to God happens first, becoming like God happens after. 

Okay. So the order is different than we expected. But what difference does that make? God is still going to ask Israel to stop choosing conditional self-love. And we have already realized that this is impossible because of the way shame and fear have been woven into the human psyche. Right? 

Right. In this limited world, human self-love produces limited love which produces shame and fear which leads to more self-love, a cycle that is impossible to escape…in this world. 

But in God’s world, Trinitarian self-love produces unlimited other-love. And once love becomes unlimited, it ceases to be a commodity. It no longer needs to be earned, or collected, or reserved, it can no longer be lost, because it is infinite and free. And this makes all the difference! Because as God’s people slowly wake up into a world where love is infinite and free, the very roots of their shame and fear will begin to wither. As they slowly relearn how to see themselves through the love in God’s eyes, their shame and fear will dissipate and they will find that they are able to take their eyes off themselves, that it is actually possible to unchoose self-love and return once again to the pure love of others — beginning with God. 

Does that make sense? 

Let me say it again in a slightly different way: in a world where true love is scarce, love becomes a commodity, like gold. In our world, gold is rare, beautiful, and useful, so we spend our lives trying to earn it and collect it. But if we were moved to a world where gold was plentiful, beautiful, and useful, we would no longer cling to it, we would give it away freely to one another, we would be excited to see what beautiful things our friends and neighbors might make with the gold we give them. 

It is the same way with love. If we could be moved to a world where love is plentiful, beautiful, and useful, we would also start giving it away unconditionally. Our shame over our unworthiness would cease; our fear of losing our Father’s love would become a distant memory. We would finally begin to heal. 

And that is what God is doing here: he is opening up to his people the path to perfect healing. Over the last weeks he has given them a new healing calendar, a new healing government, he has given them free bread and free water, he has begun to disentangle the traumatic tendrils still binding his people mentally and emotionally and spiritually to slavery in Egypt. But today he has gone right back to the foundational source of all trauma. He has gone right back to the garden, and he has spelled out explicitly what needs to happen to reverse the damage that shame and fear have done to the human psyche: 

Basically, since all this misery began when mankind chose to set themselves up as gods before God, the solution is to return to the place where they will have no other Gods before him. 

The only way this can happen is if their citizenship is transferred back to a place where they can once again be empowered to choose between self- and other-love. 

And the only way their citizenship can be transferred is through a covenant with God: a contract sealed by a blood sacrifice, with a memorial sign attached. 

This is the covenant ceremony that began today. 

And that sounds great! — for Israel. But what about us? Do we not also live in a world dominated by shame and fear, where love is a limited commodity that must be earned and collected and reserved, lest it be lost? Is it possible for us to be transferred into this other world where love is unlimited and unconditional? 

Well, the bible says yes. But just like Israel, the only way we can be transferred is by entering into a covenant with the Trinitarian God. We also need a contract sealed by a blood sacrifice, with a memorial sign attached. And how are we supposed to do that? 

Well, if you have been reading with us through the Book of Exodus, then you already know that the very structure of this Old Testament book sets the pattern for the New Testament gospels; this Old Covenant with the LORD God here points forward to the New Covenant with the Lord Jesus Christ. 

For instance: here in Exodus we have seen Moses and the people of Israel be baptized in the Red Sea and pass through a time of testing in the wilderness. As that time of testing drew to a close, we saw God choose 70 elders to serve as the ministers of his newly formed government. And now God has descended upon Mount Sinai to outline the details of his updated covenant with Israel. 

In the same way, in the first three gospels of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — Jesus is baptised in the Jordan River and passes through a time of testing in the wilderness. After that time of testing, he chooses twelve disciples to serve as ministers in his newly formed government. And then he begins to outline the details of his new covenant with Israel. Matthew and Luke are especially explicit about this: Matthew tells us that Jesus went up on a mountainside to teach — the famous Sermon on the Mount — and Luke makes a point of saying that, right after Jesus went up on a mountain to choose his twelve apostles, he descended again and began to teach. 

And the point those writers are all making is that Jesus is the mediator of God’s new covenant. If anyone wants to transfer their citizenship out of this world of slavery to shame and fear, they are going to have to enter into covenant with Jesus. 

Okay. But how? Where is the blood sacrifice, and the memorial sign? 

Jesus answers this question in the Gospel of John. At the time he was having some problems with the Pharisees — the Jewish Imams of the time. These Pharisees refuse to admit what they already know: that Jesus really is God’s Messiah, sent to restore Israel and launch the last age of the earth. The reason these Jewish Imams refuse to believe is because Jesus has been going around saying that God’s love is unlimited, unconditional, and free to anyone who asks Jesus to transfer their membership into God’s kingdom — while the Pharisees insist that God’s love must be earned, that it can only be earned by following the Pharisees’ complicated religious teachings. 

In short: the Pharisees are full of self-love. And they have enslaved the people by using shame and fear. 

So Jesus fights back. First, he calls them thieves and robbers. He accuses them of breaking into God’s sheep pen and trying to steal God’s sheep. But then he says he’s not really worried about that, because God’s sheep will not be fooled, they will run away because they do not recognize the Pharisees’ voices, the Pharisees’ false teachings. He says, “But the one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep, and the sheep listen to his voice.” And then he says, “I am the good shepherd. How can you tell? Because a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. In fact,” he says, “the reason my Heavenly Father loves me is because I lay down my life — only to take it up again.” 

What is Jesus saying here? He is claiming that his death will be the blood sacrifice required to seal God’s new covenant. He is also claiming that he will not stay dead, that he will come back to life. And because of his new resurrected life, Jesus says, “I will give my sheep eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one.” 

Basically, Jesus is describing the new covenant process before it even happened. His death did become the seal on the contract, a seal stamped in his blood. Those who listen to his voice and follow him do have their ownership transferred into God’s flock, to be ruled over by the Shepherd of unlimited, unconditional love. And in a flock where love is unlimited and unconditional, obviously life will also be unlimited and unconditional, it will be eternal life. 

Now, at that point in John, Chapter 10, Jesus’ opponents pick up stones to kill him, because they realise that Jesus, a mere man, is also claiming to be God. 

So Jesus says, “Hang on a minute! In your own scriptures isn’t there a Psalm where God himself calls you ‘gods’ and ‘sons of God’ because he gave you his Breath and his Word to live by? Well, since God’s Word calls you ‘sons of god’, it is also perfectly legitimate for me to say ‘I am God’s Son’, innit! The only difference between us is that you refuse to live by the Breath and the Word, whereas I do the works of my Father perfectly!” 

And as we can imagine, this response did not calm things down, and Jesus barely escapes with his life. 

But now: why did those people refuse to accept Jesus’ interpretation and application of God’s Word? Because they were still the descendants of the original man and woman, they were still the citizens of this limited world: they had actually set themselves up as gods, and they were not going to submit to the true God, they were not going to surrender everything they thought they had earned. They had set themselves up as their own shepherds, and they were blind to the truth that being your own shepherd does not set you free, it merely enslaves you to the endless cycle of disappointing yourself. 

Unless you are a narcissist, self-love always and inevitably turns into self-loathing. If you are a narcissist, self-love will not disappoint you. Everyone else will think you’re an ass, but you will feel great about yourself. If you are listening to this today and you have no idea what is this shame and fear the bible is talking about, then…you may be a narcissist. And you should probably get that looked at. But for the rest of us, self-love always and inevitably turns into self-loathing, because all of us, if we take an honest look at our lives, have to admit — at least to ourselves — that we are failing to live up to even our own standards. 

So listen! If you are here today and you are tired of competing for love; if you are worn out from the struggle to make yourself lovely; if you hate what you have become, what you are becoming; if you cannot stop worshiping yourself even though you know you are not worthy of worship, then…this offer to transfer your citizenship back into the garden of infinite delights is still open to you. 

If you say “yes”, Jesus’ covenant will be sealed upon you with the sign of the Holy Spirit — God himself will come to live within you! — and we, as a community, will acknowledge that internal sign with the external sign of baptism with water. Just as the sign of the rainbow, God’s war-bow, symbolizes how God protects mankind from judgement, just as the sign of Abraham’s circumcision symbolized purification and dedication, so also the sign of sprinkled water symbolizes how the Holy Spirit rains down upon all who call upon Jesus for transfer. 

So if I am describing you here, lost in the depths of shame and fear, listen now for the Good Shepherd’s voice calling; and if you hear it, call out in response: “Jesus, I am sick of myself! Save me!” and he will. 

Now, it could be that you are hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, but you cannot believe he is calling you. Because when you look at yourself, you cannot believe you are worth anything. You read this ancient text and you say, “Yeah, well, this offer is for the Israelite people. Not for someone like me.” I am here to tell you this is not true. In that same chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus was saying that he is the Good Shepherd for the Israelite people, he also said this: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” 

Friend, if you are hearing Jesus’ voice, then you are his sheep. You belong in his flock. Answer his call. Let him gather you in. And you will learn to see yourself through the love in his eyes. 

Now, what about the rest of us who have already been baptised, who have already entered into covenant with Jesus, what should we do in response to this ancient text? 

Well, if you are familiar with the bible, then you know this is the first of 10 Commandments, and it is still binding upon us: “You shall have no other gods before me.” That means we must not worship anything else except the Trinitarian God who saved us: Father, Breath, and Word; Father, Spirit, and Son. Above all we must not worship ourselves! In other words: we must give up all self-love. We must return to the pure, unselfish love of the Other, beginning with God himself. 

But how? I don’t know about you, but this command seems unkeepable to me! How many times a day do I decide to love myself first and above all? How many times a day do you? A lot, amirite? So what are we supposed to do about that? Should we just give up? Is this where we are supposed to say, “Oh, well, it’s a good thing Jesus can just top-up where I am so terrible!” 

Uhhhh…yeaaaah, sort of. No, we don’t give up! But yes, Jesus does “top-up” wherever we fail. But at the same time this is not something we can take lightly. As we read in our Prayer of Confession today, we cannot just keep on practicing self-love as if it is no big deal. If we do that, then we are actually proving that we never had the Spirit of God in the first place, we never understood the grace of Jesus Christ, we never really consented to the covenant. 

So what are we supposed to do with this reality that we do often have other gods before God? What are we supposed to do with the shame of failure, our fear of losing our Heavenly Father’s love? 

Brothers and sisters, whenever we are overwhelmed with the shame and fear of our self-worship, this is what we are commanded to do: remember. 

Remember the covenant that has sealed us into citizenship with Christ. Remember that we no longer live in a world of limited love, where our right to be loved depends upon our performance. Remember that our citizenship is in heaven, where love is as unconditional as the One who is also the Three. 

And remember what Jesus said about that? He said, “My Father is greater than all.” In other words: for those of us who have been transferred into God’s kingdom, our Father’s unlimited love for us is infinitely greater than our limited love for him — obviously! — which means that, just as Jesus said, “No one can snatch anyone out of our Father’s hand.” 

So remember this, brothers and sisters, we can’t even snatch ourselves out of our Father’s hand. 

And brothers, sisters, let us also remember that, because of this covenant, because of our transfer, our healing from self-love has already begun. It may not feel like we make much progress, but we are making progress. Our bodies still live here, in this world of limited love. But our spirits have already been resurrected into the world where love is unlimited, unconditional, and free. And as we keep on remembering this reality, as we keep reminding one another to see ourselves once again through the loving eyes of the great Other who made us, we are learning little by little how to give love away, how to consider others better than ourselves. 

So: do you want to learn how to be a better husband, a better wife, a better child to your parents, a better parent to your children? It starts by learning to love God better — which actually starts by letting God love you. Our Father has so much more patience for us than we have for ourselves! So let him. Let him! 

And let us rest in that. 

And make sure to come back next week, and the week after, as God explains, in detail, over the next two commandments, how exactly he wants us to practice not having any other gods before him. Amen? 


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