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Rooted - 2021 Advent Devotional

This Advent, we’re taking a page from one of the key symbols of Christmas—the tree—and tracing this theme through the story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. We’ll discover what trees teach us about human nature and how when we are rooted in Jesus, he becomes the ultimate source of life and strength for all of us.

Our hope is that, after participating in this devotional, you’ll never look at your Christmas tree the same way again.

Be sure to check out the resources below to make the most of your reading with in-depth insights, discussion questions, and more.

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Daily Bible Study Videos

Daily Readings and Reflections:

Week One

Day One | Monday, December 6

Reading: Genesis 1

Reflection: Trees play a significant role in the creation story. On days one through three, God creates these different kinds of environments—light, waters and sky, and land. On the third day, God also calls fourth seed-bearing plants and fruit trees, making it possible for life to be sustained on the earth. On days four through six, God fills the environments God created—the light with lights, the waters and sky with fish and birds, and the land with animals. On the sixth day, God also creates humans.

So, just like on the third day, when God created two things (land and trees), on the sixth day God created two things again (animals and humans). Just like trees, humans are called to be fruitful and multiply, filling the earth. By design, the author wants us to see a parallel between fruit-bearing trees and fruit-bearing humans. Both are planted in the Garden, both are pleasant to the sight, and just as there are multiple species and types of trees, so God’s love for diversity can also be found in us as well. Humans depend on trees for the very oxygen that allows us to breathe. And humans are called by God to care for trees in return. God tells humans to subdue the earth and rule over it, to partner with God in bringing about all the beauty and potential the world has to offer. Humans are like trees!

Questions:

  • What does it mean for you to think about the idea that humans are like trees?

  • How does this idea change the way you think about Creation and our calling to subdue the earth and rule over it?

Day Two | Tuesday, December 7

Reading: Genesis 2

Reflection: Out of the ground, God breathes humanity to life. And out of the ground, God also causes trees to spring up, trees that are pleasing to look at and good for food. So, we see on the second page of the Bible, humanity’s unique connection to trees continues. But now, God puts the two humans in a garden, alongside two very special trees.

The first is the tree of life, representing the presence of God and eternal life. The second is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and of this tree, God commands humans not to eat, for if they do, they will surely die. In Genesis 1, God is the one who declares what is good or not good. For humans, that ability is off-limits. Rather than defining for ourselves what is good or not good, we are to rely on God’s definition of good and not good. And if we take that knowledge for ourselves, God warns it will lead to our death.

So these two trees sit, side by side, in the midst of the garden. To get to the tree of life, the central point of God’s presence, humans must walk past the tree that leads to death, a tree whose leaves are beautiful and fruit enticing to the eye. Both of these trees represent a choice and a test. How long will humans be able to pass up the temptation to decide for themselves what is good? Will they eat from the tree that leads to death or continue to choose life with God in the Garden?

Questions:

  • The story puts the two trees side-by-side together in the Garden. Why do you think that is? What does this tell us about the choice between the two of them?

  • What happens when humans decide for themselves what is good and not good? Why does God say this will lead to death?

Day Three | Wednesday, December 8

Reading: Genesis 3

Reflection: An enemy slithers into the Garden. He tempts the humans with the delight of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He whispers to them, “Take it for yourself! God is deceiving you. Life will be better, more pleasurable if you just take a bite.”

And the humans fall for it. They see the tree is desirable and take it for themselves. And in one moment, it would appear as if the fate of humanity was sealed, death is now all but certain.

But hope is not lost. God turns to the serpent and announces his fate. One day a seed of the woman will come to crush the head of the snake and all of his seed, destroying evil at its source. At the same time, this snake-crusher, the heroic seed of woman, will also be crushed.

Humans are taken from the Garden and the entrance is sealed off. Now, the tree of life and the place where they dwelled with God, is out of reach. Humans are cut off from sharing in eternal life with God. And the rest of the story is about the lengths God will go to in order to restore humans to the Garden, and ultimately get them back into full relationship with God.

Questions:

  • In what ways are you tempted to define for yourself what is good or not good, rather than trusting God to do that for you?

  • Even in the Fall story, humanity's darkest hour, there is hope. Where do you see hope shining in this story, both for yourself and for humanity as a whole?

Day Four | Thursday, December 9

Reading: Genesis 8

Reflection: After humans are expelled from the Garden, chaos ensues. The first murder takes place out of pure jealousy in Genesis 4, and humanity spirals downward into violence and bloodshed. The terror is so great, God calls forth a mighty flood to cleanse the earth. And God tells a man named Noah to gather his family and create an ark out of trees. The ark acts as a new creation, with all kinds of birds and animals inside. Could this be a new and hopeful beginning for humanity?

Finally, the waters recede and Noah finds himself on a high mountaintop. Noah takes a tree, chops it up into wood, and creates an altar, where he burns sacrifices to God. And even though God says the heart of humanity hasn’t changed from their evil ways, something about Noah’s sacrifice on a high place causes God to relent. Never again, God promises, will He destroy creation the way He did with the flood.

Questions:

  • What do you think it must have been like for Noah to spend all that time with the animals in the belly of the ark waiting for dry land to appear? Have you ever felt like that? Like you were waiting on God to show you the dry land in the midst of a storm?

  • What is it about Noah’s sacrifice that causes God to make the promise never to destroy creation again?

Day Five | Friday, December 10

Reading: Genesis 22:1-19

Reflection: After Noah comes the story of Abraham, a righteous man to whom God promises a seed. God tells Abraham he will be greatly blessed so that he and his offspring can bless the rest of the world. After many struggles, Abraham and his wife Sarah have a son named Isaac. But one day, God calls Abraham to a high mountain, where He asks him to offer up his precious child.

Abraham obediently walks his son, a knife, and some wood up the mountain, where he builds an altar. This is his moment of testing. Will he do what looks right in his own eyes, as Adam and Eve did before him, and set his son free? Or will he follow God’s wisdom, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense?

In the end, Abraham chooses to trust God. He draws the knife up to strike his son, but just before the sacrifice, an angel appears and offers a ram in Isaac’s place. Abraham passes the test, and because of this, God promises to give him offspring to number the stars and that they will be greatly blessed. And we’re left to wait and watch: Could one of Abraham’s seed be the promised snake-crusher from Genesis 3?

Questions:

  • Of all the ways God could have saved the world, God chooses to do so through the promise of a seed. Why do you think that is?

  • Have you ever been in a situation where trusting God felt like death? What did you do? What happened on the other side of your decision to either trust God or not trust God?

Daily Readings and Reflections:

Week Two

Day Six | Monday, December 13

Reading: Exodus 3

Reflection: Abraham’s family grows mightily, and they find themselves in Egypt. Their swelling numbers cause Egypt’s leaders great concern. So Pharoah does what is right in his own eyes, enslaving God’s people and ordering their male children thrown into the river to die. But one child escapes, through an ark made of wood. This child, named Moses, grows up in Pharaoh's own household, until the day he’s forced to flee after murdering a fellow Egyptian.

And so it is that one day, Moses finds himself on a mountain, standing in front of a burning tree filled with God’s presence. Just like in the original Garden, this tree marks holy ground, a sacred space. God tells Moses that he will be the one to rescue God’s people from their oppression, that God Himself will be with Moses through it all, and that one day, after they are free, Moses will bring God’s people back to this same mountain to meet with Him once more and establish a new covenant relationship.

Questions:

  • Can you think of a time when you felt like you were standing on holy ground in God’s presence? What was that experience like for you?

  • In the midst of the busyness and hustle of the holiday season, how can you create or make space for these holy moments this Christmas?

Day Seven | Tuesday, December 14

Reading: Deuteronomy 30

Reflection: Moses does indeed end up partnering with God to rescue God’s people from Egypt. He leads them through the wilderness and back to Mt. Sinai, where God establishes His covenant with them. But it’s not long before the people break it. Later, they find themselves wandering the wilderness, lost and grumbling, wishing they could return to Egypt. Because of their rebellion, God promises that none of them will enter the Promised Land, only their children.

In Deuteronomy, Moses addresses this second generation, the children of those who wandered the wilderness and turned their back on God. Moses lays before them a choice: life or death. They can choose to follow God, the tree that leads to life, or do what is right in their own eyes like their parents before them, the tree that leads to death. Moses begs them to choose life, to obey God and cling to God for their sustenance. And if they do, he says they will dwell in the land of their forefathers with God.

Questions:

  • What does it mean for you to heed Moses’ call to choose life this holiday season? What are some of the ways you are led to do this every day?

Day Eight | Wednesday, December 15

Reading: 2 Samuel 7

Reflection: Many generations pass from the first of God’s people, who enter the Promised Land, until the time of the kings comes upon Israel. Israel’s second king, David, seeks to build God a house upon a mountain, not unlike his own made of cedar. Noble as his desire may be, God tells David that rather than David building God a house, God plans to build David a house. God promises to raise up a seed of David, whose throne will be established forever. God says, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.”

David is overjoyed. He breaks out in worship and thanksgiving to God. “Who am I to receive such an incredible blessing?” he thinks. And so, once again, we eagerly wait. Could one of David’s offspring be the promised snake-crusher? Will his seed be the one to overthrow evil once and for all?

Questions:

  • David wants to build God a house, but God says it’s going to be the other way around. Are there times you feel like we still fall into this trap today—thinking we have to do things for God when really it is God who does things for us?

  • How do you see the theme of David’s ‘seed’ ruling forever foreshadowed in the story thus far? What do you think this story might be pointing toward?

Day Nine | Thursday, December 16

Reading: Psalm 1

Reflection: The first Psalm plays with the Genesis connection between humans and trees. Like in Genesis 2 and 3, the poet says we must choose between becoming one of two types of trees. Those who delight in God’s law are like a tree planted by streams of water. This type of human produces good fruit in every type of season and never worries about withering. In other words, this is the tree of life. But not so with the wicked, for they whither down to dust that blows away in the wind. This is the tree of death.

The psalmist leaves you with the same choice: Which tree will you become? Will you be like the one who meditates on the Word of God day and night, who doesn’t follow the prompting of the wicked, but rather trusts God to guide your steps? Like Adam and Eve, and all other humans who came before us, we have the opportunity to pass by the tree in the garden that looks desirable but leads to death or cling to the tree that leads to life.

Questions:

  • What does it practically look like for you to live this Christmas season as the tree planted by streams of water? What do you imagine might be different about this season if you were to live that way?

Day Ten | Friday, December 17

Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10

Reflection: The time of the kings comes to a spectacular and tragic end. David’s grandchild takes the throne and leads the people in rebellion against God. Nearly every king who comes after continues down this dark path, until the kingdom is split in two. Invading forces seize upon their weakness and strike against God’s people. The northern kingdom is destroyed, the people are carted off into exile. The southern kingdom soon follows.

Israel, which once stood like a mighty tree, has been chopped down. Only a stump remains. It would seem as if all is lost. But what can’t be seen are the roots that still spread deep into the soil; the tree is not dead yet. God tells the prophet Isaiah that one day, new growth will form from the stump, a shoot that comes from a seed of Jesse, David’s lineage.

God says that this seed will carry God’s own Spirit and will not judge by what is right in his own eyes, but on what is righteous before God. At a time when all seems bleak, God plants a seed of hope.

Questions:

  • What lessons can we learn from Israel’s fall story that is still relevant for us today?

  • The only reason Israel survived their fall is because of their roots. The stump wasn’t torn completely out of the ground and therefore, new growth can form. How are your roots? Do you feel like they are strong enough to withstand trials and testing? What is something you can do this season to strengthen your roots?

Daily Readings and Reflections:

Week Three

Day Eleven | Monday, December 20

Reading: Isaiah 53

Reflection: The prophet Isaiah issues one more famous word about the seed that will come. Out of the parched, dry ground of Israel will come a young shoot. Where God’s people have gone astray, the seed comes to reveal what it means to live rightly by God, to choose life. It will not be a beautiful plant, not outwardly desirable like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was in the Garden; this tree will be despised and rejected by men, and ultimately crushed by them.

Yet, just like God promised in the beginning, it is in this crushing that the seed brings restoration to all of God’s people. This seed is crushed every time you and I have chosen to give in to the tree of death. And like the ram with Isaac, this seed will take our place in death. Because when this seed chooses life, he throws open the door to the Garden, giving all of us a chance to come and dwell with God once more.

Questions:

  • Is there something that seems devastating or dark about your current circumstances? How does this passage give you hope that new growth can come from the stump?

  • How does this story reveal the faithfulness of God, despite the unfaithfulness of humans? What does this tell you about God’s character?

Day Twelve | Tuesday, December 21

Reading: Jeremiah 17:1-13

Reflection: The prophet Jeremiah speaks about Asherah poles, wooden idols placed on hills where God’s people worshiped false gods. Where they were supposed to take from the tree of life on the mountain, instead they turned to worship things that looked like they could bring fulfillment but were ultimately empty. And God’s anger burned against them as a result. Those who worship false idols are like a shrub in the desert, cut off from the living water spoken of in Psalm 1.

Just like in the early days of Noah, God sees that the human heart is bent toward evil. The Israelites were more concerned with their false gods than putting down roots by the stream of living water, and so they withered and grew parched. But those who put their trust in the Lord, who are connected to the tree of life, are blessed. Their roots sink deep into the rich soil fed by the living water.

As we turn now to the New Testament story, we hold out hope that the shoot will sprout from the stump and the snake-crusher will finally come. We look for the one who is like living water, in whom we can trust to sustain us and guide our paths.

Questions:

  • When you look at your life, which would you more closely identify with: a shrub in the desert or a tree planted by living water? Why do you think that is? What can you do this holiday season to breathe life into any areas where you may feel dry or brittle?

  • We may not gather around literal wooden idols in worship today, but we are still guilty of bowing down to false gods. What are some of the false idols we are tempted to worship today in place of God? What does this look like for you personally?

Day Thirteen | Wednesday, December 22

Reading: John 1:1-18

Reflection: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Just when all hope seems lost, when it feels as if God’s promise to bring a deliverer will never come true, the Word becomes flesh. The seed has come. And all who receive him will be given the opportunity to choose life.

But there will be plenty who don’t receive him. For this seed doesn’t look at first like a tall and proud tree, it looks like a simple carpenter from Nazareth. And as is often the case, our world is far more concerned with how things appear above the surface, rather than the roots that run deep beneath. Those who reject the seed fail to see how his roots have been growing throughout the Old Testament, long before the first green stem peaked above the soil.

Questions:

  • How has the story been building to this moment from the beginning? What does this tell you about who God is and who we are?

  • We often take for granted the birth of Jesus, but God’s people waited hundreds of years to see the light dawn in the darkness, and even then some of them missed it. What do you think it would have been like waiting for the Messiah? Do you still feel like you’re waiting for Jesus today in some ways?

Day Fourteen | Thursday, December 23

Reading: Luke 1:26-56

Reflection: Hundreds of years after the Old Testament story ends, a new story begins. A young virgin is told she will bear a seed, and not just any seed—the angel tells Mary that her baby will be called the Son of God and will inherit the throne of David, the everlasting throne spoken of in 2 Samuel 7. Mary’s son will be the promised seed that all Israel had been anxiously awaiting for generations and generations. Can you imagine what she must have thought?

If you think of Mary like a tree, her branches wouldn’t be high or mighty, they might feel more like one of those Charlie Brown trees you see each year in Target. After all, she’s a young virgin from a small rural town in northern Israel. When we think about the people God wants to use to change the world, we think about tall oak trees, whose branches are strong and well-developed and whose height towers to the heavens. But often in the Bible, God uses the very people who are overlooked or underestimated to accomplish God’s mighty works.

And it’s easy to see why. While Mary’s branches may not appear tall or strong, her roots are solidly planted. Her love for God runs deep, to the point where she bursts forth in song, praising God and declaring the glory of the seed growing within her.

Questions:

  • At last we reach the familiar stories surrounding Christmas. How has tracing the theme of trees through the Bible thus far changed the way you think about Christmas and the true meaning behind the birth of Jesus?

Day Fifteen | Friday, December 24

Reading: Luke 2:1-21

Reflection: Today marks one of the most holy nights in the Christian calendar, a night when we reflect on and celebrate the birth of our Savior. And as we gather around our families and sing about a silent and holy night, as we light our candles in the dark and gaze upon our Christmas trees, my hope is that we begin to see just how deep the roots of this moment extend, beyond just this one story about a young virgin and her husband.

Because this moment is the culmination of the story that began with a couple in a garden, who gave into temptation and took for themselves what didn’t belong to them. The story of a man called to trust God even when it seemed like doing so would mean death and another who faced down a burning bush and was called, against all odds, to free God’s people from oppression. It’s the story of a king, who despite being deeply flawed, loved God and was promised an eternal kingdom from his lineage. It’s the story of an entire nation taken from their homes and brought into exile, where they eagerly longed for the one who would restore their hope.

It’s also the story of you and me and the millions of other Christians around the world who rejoice because this is the moment when God came to be with us. The very name of Jesus means “God saves.” So no matter how deep the darkness gets in our world, we know the light of Christ cannot be extinguished. And it is for that reason that we can confidently join the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Questions:

  • On this Christmas Eve, take a moment to pray and thank God for the gift that is the birth of Jesus. Spend some time reflecting on what this gift means to you personally, to your family, and to the body of believers we call the Church. Is there anything God is teaching you or revealing to you this Christmas that is unique?

Daily Readings and Reflections:

Week Four

Day Sixteen | Monday, December 27

Reading: John 15:1-17

Reflection: One of Jesus’ favorite images to use when teaching his disciples is that of trees. He often speaks of fruit and seeds when sharing about what it means to belong to the kingdom of God. In John 15, Jesus compares himself to a type of tree, a vine with many branches. Each of these branches represent a person who is abiding in Jesus. And it is only when we are connected to him that we are able to bear fruit. Those who are not connected to him will wither away into nothing.

In other words, Jesus is comparing himself to the tree of life from Genesis 1-3, where those who trust in him are able to find life and meaning. Instead of being planted in the soil and trying to grow on our own, we are called to be rooted in Jesus. And as we each begin to grow new fruit, it’s like we’re adding to a new garden of God’s people that draws upon Jesus as the source of life.

Questions:

  • Even as we begin to pack up our Christmas trees and decorations this week, the image of the tree stays with us. Jesus compares himself to a tree. Why do you think he chooses this imagery when describing what it means to follow him?

  • What do you think it means to ‘abide’ in Jesus? What does this look like for you practically as you think about the year to come?

Day Seventeen | Tuesday, December 28

Reading: Matthew 21:1-22

Reflection: At the end of his ministry, Jesus rides into Jerusalem, a city that was supposed to represent the hotspot of God’s relationship with His people. But what Jesus finds there is a corrupt Temple that prays on the vulnerable and keeps others at arms length instead of inviting them in. Jesus is indignant at the sight of his Father’s house, a place of restoration and hope, being turned into a place of oppression and greed. While to all those in Israel the Temple’s branches appear strong and tall, Jesus knows the tree is all but dead because it has already been cut off from its roots in God.

The next day, while returning to the city, Jesus stumbles upon a fig tree. But instead of finding abundant fruit, he finds only leaves. So he curses the tree and it withers away at once. While it may appear these stories are separate, they actually are intricately interwoven. The prophets often referred to Israel as a fig tree. Micah 7:1-2 says, “There is no cluster to eat, no first-ripe fig that my soul desires. The godly have perished from the earth, and there is no one upright among mankind.” And Psalm 1 reminds us that all who are planted by the stream of living water are able to bear fruit in any season. But here we find a fig tree with nothing on it but leaves.

Jesus uses the tree as an image for the fact that the Temple system in Israel is failing, there is no fruit to be found. What looks like a bright shiny building, a tall tree stretching toward the heavens, has no roots and, therefore, cannot produce good fruit. Jesus curses the tree, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” Jesus is looking forward to the day when a new tree is planted in Israel and all those who abide in this new tree of life will bear much fruit.

Questions:

  • The Temple looked good on the outside (the branches were large), but the root system was failing (they were not truly connected to God). What are some of the ways culture leads us today to be more concerned with our branches than our roots?

  • Which of the two do you find yourself focusing on, your branches or your roots? Why do you think that’s the case?

Day Eighteen | Wednesday, December 29

Reading: Romans 11:1-24

Reflection: By cursing the fig tree, has God rejected the people in Israel? As Paul writes, by no means! Jesus wants to restore Israel to its original mission, a nation who was blessed by God, so they could be a blessing to the rest of the world. Paul reminds his peers that it is not the fact that they are Israelites that saves them. It is not the branches that provide life, the Temple system or their rituals, but the deep roots to which they are connected.

And now, Jesus has opened the connection to that root system to not just to the Israelites, but to all those who will trust in him. All those branches who do not believe will be cut off. Paul says God is severe toward those who have fallen, but to those who have faith, God’s kindness abounds. It is this kindness, God’s willingness to graft in wild branches, that allows for you and me to be part of the faith—a faith that is not closed off to any, but open to all who desire to link themselves to the root system of Jesus.

Questions:

  • As you look forward to a new year, what are some of the ways you can begin to focus more on growing your root system? Jot down a few practical ideas that you might want to include as part of your New Year’s Resolutions.

  • Israel was always blessed by God so they could be a blessing to others. And the same is true for us today. As you think about all the ways you are blessed this year, consider how God might be calling you to share those blessings with those around you.

Day Nineteen | Thursday, December 30

Reading: Revelation 21

Reflection: At Christmas, we celebrate the moment when light broke into a dark world, making hope possible for all. But even though the light has come, we still live in a world plagued by darkness. And as we prepare for a new year, we yearn for the day when God will come to restore all things, when there will be no more tears or mourning or crying or pain. We long for the New Jerusalem.

Revelation 21 tells us what that city will be like—a place where God will once again dwell with humans forever. It’s a city adorned with gold and gemstones, but without a Temple. Because when Jesus reigns as king, there will be no need for a Temple. There will be no need either for the sun or mood to give their light, because light will come from the glory of God and the Lamb—and there is no darkness that can overcome that light.

And while we wait for this day to come, Jesus doesn’t want us to wait as those with no hope. Jesus calls us to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth in the here and now, and he teaches us how to be part of actually making that happen. Yes, we long for the day when all wrongs are set right and every tear is dried, but in the meantime, we get to work loving God and loving our neighbor, becoming more like Christ each and every day.

Questions:

  • It’s not hard to see the ways darkness is still present in the world. Spend a few moments asking God to reveal ways you can be part of spreading the light even as we wait for God to come and make all things right.

  • What do you think it will be like in the new city at the end of the age? What do you hope it looks like or feels like?

Day Twenty | Friday, December 31

Reading: Revelation 22

Reflection: In this final chapter of the Bible, all of the tree imagery we’ve traced from the first pages of Scripture come to fruition. We find a river of life, flowing from the throne of God in the midst of the tree of life. This tree yields fruit in every season, and its leaves bring healing to the nations. At the foot of this tree is where we will see God, and His name will be on our foreheads, a sign of our ultimate allegiance to God. This is the New Jerusalem, where there’s no need for light beyond the light that comes from God. In this new Garden, darkness has no authority anymore.

As we celebrate the dawning of a new year, looking forward to the hope of new beginnings and new opportunities, and as we struggle with the anxiety of not knowing what comes next or how certain circumstances will resolve themselves, may we hold fast to the knowledge that Jesus is coming soon. And until that day, may we be like trees planted by streams of water, grafted into the root system of Jesus, finding our life in him. It doesn’t matter how big our branches appear to be—how much we have or how little, how successful we are or unsuccessful—it is only when our roots run deep in Jesus that we can even hope to bear fruit.

So, may we be people whose roots are outpacing our branches, whose deep faith in Jesus is what gives us lives. May we be people who do not turn to the false things of this world for hope or sustenance, who attempt to do it all on our own, cut off from the tree of life. But may we instead rely on our faith in Christ to guide us and sustain us, all the days of our lives.

Amen.

Questions:

  • The imagery of the tree is found on the first page of the Bible and here on the last. How does tracing this theme throughout the rest of Scripture change the way you think about the grand narrative of the Bible?

  • Most of us will encounter trees around us as an everyday reality of where we live. Has this devotional changed the way you think about trees and our relationship to them? If so, in what ways?

  • What do you think it means now for humans to be like trees? What does this look like for you personally?

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