Category Archives: Spiritual Truths

God’s Own

(a sermon for January 7, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11)

Maybe it’s because we’re just starting a new year with all its mystery and possibility, or perhaps it has to do with the fact that I realize that I’m now beginning – slowly, mind you, ever so slowly – to creep into the latter phase of my middle-aged years (!); but I have to confess that lately I’ve been asking myself a question that I’m guessing most of us have asked at one time or another:

Just who am I in the scheme of things, anyway?

Seriously… wouldn’t you agree with me this morning that this might well be one of the single most crucial questions you and I face over the course of our lives and living?  Understanding, of course, that this is not merely a matter of name, rank and serial number; the knowledge of one’s credit rating or pin number; or even if one happens to be a dog person or cat person!  No, this is a question that has to do with the search for self; it’s nothing less than the very quest for one’s own place amidst the conflicting claims and utter confusion of human life! I guess that’s why a question like this is not reserved for the young, but also for those of us who… well, let’s just say those of us who have the benefit of additional life experience!   It’s a question of all of us, to be sure; in fact, it’s what the renowned author and journalist Gail Sheehy refers to as the “one continuing, never-ending, life-long crisis of identity; the ‘Who am I?’ [that’s] asked all the way from womb to tomb, through one passage to the next.”  Simply put, figuring out exactly who we are in the scheme of things can be a long process, and it is by no means easy!

And what makes it all the more difficult is that literally from the time we’re born and continuing up to today and beyond, there’s always some person, some group, some cause or another, some social or political manifesto out there that that proposes to answer that question for us; to give us an identity, as it were, forged in their image!  For instance, pick up any magazine at the checkout line at the supermarket, or for that matter, turn on the television any night of the week and the message is crystal clear:  that we are beautiful, physically perfect, sexual beings who live wholly unto the ideal of pleasure, popularity and affluence! Never mind that such an ideal is not only unattainable but also potentially dangerous (!), nonetheless that’s what all the advertisers of this world seize upon.  Madison Avenue would in fact convince us that we are all merely consumers, makers and spenders of money; and that our primary purpose in life is to accumulate all those things that make us like the people on the magazine covers!

And it goes on and on: we’re told by the business and academic world that who we are is defined by what we do; more to the point, by how successful we are at what we do, even if that success comes at the expense of family, friends or even God.  The political pundits, especially these days, quickly and way too easily seek to label us as “Red State” or “Blue State,” liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, progressive or “deplorable.”  And then, of course, there are those in just about every walk of life who proclaim the gospel of self-centered, self-made autonomy; in other words, “It’s all about me,” except when it involves you, and then… well, it’s still all about me!

My point in all this is to say that for most of us it’s hard to get a clear sense of who we are in the scheme of things when the rest of the world is offering up all these warped and confused ideas of what it means to be a person of some kind of depth and integrity! And this is particularly true, I think, for those of us who would carry the mantle of “Christian,” because the world most decidedly does not seek to instill that sense of identity within us; in fact, such is the radical nature of the Christian faith is that more often than not, the world would seek to pull us away from that identity!

So that’s why, friends, it is so very important – crucial, really, most especially in these times– that you and I remember our baptism.  It seems like such a simple thing, but when it comes to who we are, it’s truly everything!  For just as at the moment of our Lord Jesus’ baptism, “a voice came from heaven [saying]: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” so by the baptism of water and the Holy Spirit we are also affirmed and identified as God’s own beloved children.  It is by our baptism that we can truly know who we are!

You see, whether we’re talking about the baptism of young children or the confession of faith of an adult, we understand baptism as ultimately a rite and sacrament of identity.  William Willimon, in fact, gives one of the best definitions of this I’ve read in recent years; he writes that baptism is when “a Christian first and finally learns who he or she is.”  I like that; in other words, it’s not about what “we ought to be,” or “what we have to work toward,” or “what we will be someday if only we can quit messing up and get it right for a change,” and it’s most decidedly not what the world says we can be if we just get with the program!  Christian Baptism is about what we are – here, now, today – and what we are, is “God’s own, claimed and ordained for God’s serious and joyful business.”

I don’t know about you, but I want to know that I am “God’s own;” moreover, given the cacophony of mixed messages that I keep hearing from the world, let me tell you that I need to know that.  I think that’s why I have always gravitated toward our reading from Isaiah this morning, because this is one of the great and eloquent reminders from scripture of who and whose we are:  “…thus says the LORD… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

You are mine:  what a powerful message that is… and it always has been.

We need to remember that this word was directed to the people of Israel living in exile: miles from home, their city destroyed, their faith fading into little more than a distant memory, their very existence as a people in danger.  Understand that these were people unsure of who they even were anymore, and that alone filled them with a sense of fear and dread that they would forever remain a people lost and abandoned.  But that we can understand, can’t we; isn’t that, after all, one of the most common fears that almost everyone shares; to be completely and utterly alone?  I’m remembering a classmate of mine from seminary days who apparently as a teenager spent a short time living on the streets.  I say “apparently” because the truth is, she didn’t talk all that much about it; in fact, all I ever remember her saying is that she learned a great deal from the experience, and that the worst part of it was that she felt like “nobody.”  Can there be anything worse than being… nobody, with no identity at all?

And so it was for Israel; but now, in the midst of their worst fear and greatest despair, comes the assurance of the Lord:  “Do not fear… [for] you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you will not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”   Or, consider The Message’s translation of this particular passage:  “When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and the hard place, it won’t be a dead end – because I am God, your personal God, the Holy of Israel, your Savior.  I paid a huge price for you:  all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in! That’s how much you  mean to me!  That’s how much I love you!  I’d sell off the whole world to get you back, trade the creation just for you.”

That’s just how much we’re loved – we’re not a nobody; and we’re more than just anybody or even somebody – we are “precious … and honored” in God’s sight; bought with a price, named and claimed as God’s very own so that he might love us today and tomorrow and for all of life, now and eternally.  And to “seal the deal,” as it were, he sent to us his own beloved Son, Jesus; so that by and through him we might always know just how deep God’s love truly is, and how, by that love, we can come to know ourselves as we truly are.  We are, you see, ever and always in all things and in all ways, God’s own.

Oh, yes, I know; the fact is that all of us here can claim a whole lot of identities over the course of our lives.  We’re sons and daughters, we’re husbands and wives, we’re parents and grandparents; we’re known by what we do for work, and the things we enjoy doing; we’re known by that which we believe in and the causes that we’re passionate about; we’re known by the words we speak and even more so by the actions we take; and sometimes we’re even identified by the kind of friends we have, but most especially by the kind of friends we are!

The truth is that every one of us here can answer that question – “who are you, anyway?” – and do so in a wide variety of ways. But the good news we’re given today, beloved, is that at the heart of who we are is this pervasive and enduring truth that we are first and foremost, each and every one of us a child of God!  That is the one identity that gives shape and color and form to all the other names and roles that we can ever carry; it is our baptism, this affirmation that we’ve received that we are God’s own that tells us, and the world around us, everything that’s needed about just who – and whose – we are in the scheme of things.

One of the nice things, you know, about coming to the Lord ’s Table as we do is that in coming into the presence of the Lord in the bread and the cup, we are reminded of our “true identity,” so to speak.  Maybe that’s something you need today; maybe these next few minutes can serve as a way of reconnecting with who you really are, as opposed to who everything and everyone else in the world has told you or maybe expects you to be… maybe this is the day you get back in touch with the one who has loved you enough to make you his own.  I can’t think of a better way to start off a new year than that!

Don’t be afraid, God says.  I’m with you, and I will be with you till the end of the age.  That’s how much I love you.

The table is set, beloved; so let us come and feast on the presence of our Lord; and to remember our baptism!

Thanks be to God!


c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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(a meditation for December 31, 2017, the First Sunday after Christmas and New Year’s Eve, based on Ephesians 3:14-21)

“I’ve made my New Year’s resolution this year.” Or so said the man on the radio as I was driving down the road one day about this time of year; and he went on to say, “And it’s the same one I make every year: not to make any New Year’s resolutions!”

Now that’s noble, I remember thinking.  What better way to avoid not keeping a resolution for the coming year than not to make one in the first place!   Kind of misses the whole point of the thing, but even then I had to admit I did understand his thinking!  I mean, how many of us have made all these grand commitments to self-improvement on January 1st only to find our firm resolve slipping away long before the month has passed!  At least this way you’re guaranteed success; because if you promise nothing then you’re responsible to nothing!

Of course, if you think about it for very long you discover that idea doesn’t really hold water, either.  The truth is that we’re all responsible to something or someone: our families, our friends, the people with whom and for whom we labor; and certainly, as Christians, we’re responsible to God!   Bottom line is that we have obligations of one sort or another that extend to just about every facet of our lives; and every decision we make on a day to day basis (even something as seemingly but deceptively simple as how we eat or exercise) ends up saying something not only about ourselves and our own lives, but also about how we value and relate to those around us.  So we can avoid making resolutions; but the responsibilities and the relationships that inspired those resolutions will always be there!

So what are we to do about this resolution conundrum, especially today as we literally come to the brink of a brand new year?   Maybe the answer comes in changing how we think of this idea of making resolutions.  Rather than making promises we’re not at all sure we can or that we’re even willing (!) to keep, maybe on this last day of 2017 we should be seizing the opportunity for honest assessment of where we actually are in our lives, so that we might make a “mid-course correction” for the journey that awaits us in 2018.  In other words, we need to ask ourselves, how did it go last year, anyway?  Were there things we should have done differently?  How far off track did we find ourselves wandering from where we wanted to be and where we are right now; and how do we keep that from happening in the year to come?  Because it’s one thing, friends, for us to make a list of resolutions for a new year; but it’s quite another to be purposeful in finding ways that’ll make those resolutions a reality in our lives.

I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot as of late; and perhaps it’s because it’s been such a tumultuous year in the world around us that we’ve felt a bit “blown off course,” so to speak, or maybe it’s because even as I’m getting older, I feel like I’m heading in a direction that inevitably becomes busier and busier (which is not really the direction I was expecting to go!), but it seems to me that this kind of “mid-course correction” would be most appropriate for any of us as enter into a new year!  In fact, as I’ve been thinking on this I realize I’ve come up with three “resolutions” that might just help in getting us “back on course,” not only in the walk of life but the walk of faith as well.  So in lieu of a real sermon today, I’d like to take a couple moments to share those resolutions with you.

The first resolution I want to make for 2018 is to GIVE MORE.   You know, not only in having had not one, but two hip replacements this past year and my wife Lisa having to deal with surgeries and illness of her own, but also in walking with many of you in the challenges, struggles and unwelcome transitions of life, I was reminded once again of the truth that there is so much in this life that is completely out of our control.  Though we might, in our weaker moments, fear otherwise,  I’m here to remind  us all of the truth that none of what happens to us is contingent on how “good” or “bad” we are; the bottom line, folks, is, as Christ himself said, it rains on the just and the unjust.  But… by the same token there is no way that any of us could possibly earn or be deserving of the blessings of love, joy and insight we’ve received at the hand of God and in the care of God’s people; as much as we may try, there is no way we can even begin to live up to what we’ve been given in such abundance.  In the end, all any of us really can do is to try to live our lives faithfully in the midst of all of its myriad joys and struggles.

So be it resolve that we give more of ourselves to God’s movement and purpose as life, with all its unpredictability, unfolds before us; to be more “in the moment” where faith is concerned; to be intentional in recognizing that in every happenstance and casual conversation God’s Spirit might well be moving and we would best pay attention!  Also, we need to listen better and talk a whole lot less; and to be more aware of the opportunities that will arise to show God’s love and care in what we say and in what we do. Let us resolve in 2018 to give more of ourselves to God.

The second resolution I want to make is sort of the flip side of this; for not only do I resolve to give more, I also resolve to COMPLAIN LESS.  That’s right… I said it!  Actually, I’m reminded here of the old joke you’ve probably heard me tell:  how many Congregationals does it take to change a light bulb?   And the answer is, CHANGE?   We can’t change that light bulb?  My grandfather gave that light bulb?  And besides, the old light bulb was just fine… we don’t need any new light bulbs in this church!

That’s a joke that applies in more ways than one!  I’ll make a confession here and now; sometimes change comes hard for me.  In the words of Paul Simon, “I seem to lean on old familiar ways.”   I like what’s comfortable and easy, and I don’t always want to see things move away from that; but you see, the problem with that kind of thinking is that life does not always flow in a way that’s comfortable and easy!  Life is always moving, always changing, always shifting, always creating a new landscape and offering up new challenges.   And truly, that’s now it should be; for that’s how the living God moves and works for the good.  Life is change, and in the end, we have a choice:  we can either be reluctant about change and grouse about it to the extent that we’ll miss its excitement and joy, or we can resolve to trust God’s leading us through the changes of our lives, and view it as the next good step of the adventure that the Lord is setting before us.  So be it resolved that we quit complaining about all the changes going on and… and let God lead us forward.  Let us rejoice that God is alive and moving, and has something wonderful in store for us as this new year unfolds!

And in that regard, finally, the third resolution I would make this year would be to PRAISE GOD ALWAYS.  There’s an old saying – I think it might have been C.S. Lewis who said it, I’m not sure – that “none are so unholy as those whose hands are cauterized with holy things; sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job.”   That quote has always hit close to home for me, because even as a minister, it’s very easy to lose sight of what it is I’m supposed to be doing; easy to become so consumed with the work of ministry that I get momentarily misplace, shall we say, my ultimate calling, which is to love and serve Jesus Christ our Lord as a pastor, as a husband and father, and as a man with all-too-human and occasionally quirky tendencies!

And unless I miss my guess, most of you can probably say the same thing!  Let me just say this outright:  in this year to come, we cannot let ourselves become so busy, so overwhelmed with all the minutiae of our lives that we I forget to praise God, and to do so with our words, our deeds and our very lives!  No matter what it is we say or do; no matter whether we succeed or fail in it; no matter how much we give of ourselves or how much less we complain about it, in all things the Lord needs to be acknowledged, or else it means… nothing.  Without praise and thanksgiving unto God, it’s just a job; it’s just a chore; it’s just another day.

So be it resolved that we praise God always; and in all ways!  At this time of the year more than any other, you and I must never forget that we are children of light, and that light needs to illumine everything we set out to do or to be as persons, as a people and might I add, most especially as the church.   Actually this resolution ends up the key to fulfilling the other two; for as you and I praise God with our whole hearts in the year ahead we will be moved to give more and what’s more, to complain less as we do; in the process we’ll discovering the true wisdom of life and living:  which is, as we’ve heard proclaimed this morning, “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

I really can’t think of what would make for a happier or more blessed new year… but I dare say it begins with our resolve to make it happen!

So let us pray for each other in making and keeping these resolutions and others as well, as we embark on the next part of our shared journey of life and faith.

Happy New Year, dear friends; and may our thanks be to God!


c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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Does Christ Rule?

(a sermon for November 26, 2017, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost and “Reign of Christ” Sunday; based on John 18:33-37 and Revelation 1:4-8)

Here’s a question for you on which to ponder this morning:  when you think of Christ, what kind of image comes to mind?  How do you “see” Jesus in your own mind’s eye?

I suspect that many of us, for instance, would see Jesus as a brother or a friend, as one who walks the journey of life with us; sometimes beside us, other times walking ahead, but always talking with us and giving us counsel as we go (that’s always been the kind of  image that comes to my mind). But then again, there are those among us who will always turn to the biblical picture of the good shepherd: Jesus as the gentle savior who seeks out the lost and the injured sheep, carrying the wounded and the lame to safety upon his own shoulders.  I also know quite a few who prefer the image of Jesus as divine rebel, challenging the authorities of his and every time; who turns the world upside down with his righteous anger and redeeming love, and who calls us to follow him he does so.

There’s Jesus the teacher; Jesus the healer; Jesus who sits with little children gathered around him; and Jesus who himself was this tiny babe wrapped in rags and is sleeping in a manger: so many “personas” of Christ, if you will; so many pictures that help define our relationship with him.

But I wonder… when we think about Jesus, how many of us will come up with the image of a King?  It’s not that we’re unfamiliar with the image – after all, before long we’ll all be singing of herald angels giving “glory to the newborn King” – it’s just that given our modern sensibilities, this is one persona with which we might feel a bit uncomfortable.  These days, the word “king” conjures up images of childhood fairy tales, on the one hand; or the latest gossip surrounding latter day “royals,” on the other!  Moreover, in modern parlance the word “king” often suggests a patriarchal kind of absolute rule: a man of immense power who is unafraid of issuing orders and compelling obedience, which is most definitely not the picture we have of Jesus!

Yet, here it is, a day on the Christian calendar in which we celebrate the Christian confession that Christ is King!  Granted, these days we tend toward the more inclusive label of “Reign of Christ” Sunday, but historically and traditionally, this has always been “Christ the King Sunday,” in which the image of Jesus as king is front and center;  and not simply king, either, but Jesus as King of the church, King of the nations, “ruler of the kings of the earth,” the name that is above every name: King of Kings and Lord of Lords!  Make no mistake here, friends; scripture takes this idea of kingship very seriously; in fact, it can well be argued that a large part of the Biblical story tells of how God answered the cries of his people Israel for a King who would rule them with justice and wisdom, and who would lead them from exile to all glory.  But more than just a bit of ancient history, this is about how God answered those cries, and that in the end makes the difference, and it’s why we celebrate.  For when the Gospels announce to us that God finally did give Israel, and us, a King, it turns out that this was not the King they expected or wanted, but it was the King they needed.

Jesus, you see, was a different kind of king.  This king, writes Roy Berkenbosch, was born of peasant stock and held no claims to a royal pedigree or a legacy of social or military power; but in fact lived with an affection for and an identification with the poor, the least and the lost.  “He teaches people to love their enemies, not destroy them,” says Berkenbosch, “to seek endless forgiveness, not endless vengeance.  He introduces the law of unconditional love [and] he redefines power by humbly washing the feet of his followers.”  He is Jesus the Christ, “and he comes with the announcement that in him, the Kingdom of God has come near, in the midst of us to be received as a gift.”

I will say it again:  Jesus comes to us as a King of another kind; the ruler not of a territory, nor of a particular race of people, but a ruler, a sovereign of truth.  He is Christ the King, the Messiah, given authority, glory and sovereign power through the God of the Universe;  in the eloquent words of Revelation, He “is the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end, the one “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty,” the one who will reign forever and ever; the one in whom all divided hearts will one day see the truth of the One true and living God.

Or, to put it still another way, Christ rules!

Our gospel reading for this morning, I realize, might feel a little bit out of place this time of year.  The passion narrative, from which this passage from John is drawn, seems to be better suited for Lent or Holy Week than right now when we’re just about to embark on the journey of Advent and Christmas!  But in fact, this little exchange between Pontius Pilate and Jesus strikes to the very heart of what we’re talking about today.  As we pick up today’s passage Jesus, of course, has already been despised and rejected by the authorities, betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, and abandoned by his disciples; and now he stands before Pilate, whose job as a regional governor for Caesar is to keep the peace in the area and figure out what to do about this man Jesus.  The truth, however, is that Pilate couldn’t really find any grounds for the charges made against Jesus; so he starts asking questions, perhaps to find a legitimate reason for a death sentence, or perhaps at the very least to find a loophole to get himself neatly out of this situation!

And so he asks, “Are you King of the Jews?”  In other words, who are you really, Jesus?  Are you a threat?  Are you the leader of some kind of movement that’s going to overthrow our government and mess up the status quo?  One thing that I find wonderful about this passage is that Jesus responds to Pilate while not ever really answering his questions:  “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me… my kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  And then Pilate, no doubt exasperated by a conversation that was seemingly going nowhere, asks, “So you are a king?”  To which Jesus says again, “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  And even then, you’ll notice, Pilate doesn’t get what Jesus is saying to him:  in the verse that immediately follows where we read today, Pilate can only respond by saying, “But what is truth?”

What Pilate could not understand, and truly, what we so often fail to see is that Jesus’ kingship can’t be judged by worldly standards; on the contrary, the standards and practices of the world end up being judged by the truth of love that Jesus brings!  Everything about our lives – our loyalties and allegiances, our set priorities and the choices we make for ourselves, all the many “empires” of life and the world of which we are a part – all end up coming under the intense scrutiny of this one who is the King of kings!  As such he the Lord of life; each and every day of it, with all of its mystery, its wonder and its challenge. His kingdom is one of justice, even when that justice is costly; it is one of love, even and especially when that love is sacrificial; it is one of peace, always and ever standing in opposition usual patterns of power in this world;  and it is one of true servanthood, in which taking up the cross is the means to real leadership.  It is radical, upside-down, inside out thinking, to be sure, but that’s who Christ is:  and he is Christ the King of our present reality, yours and mine.

So the only question that remains, beloved, is this:  does Christ rule?   Or, let me make this more personal, when it’s all said and done, when it all comes down for you and me, who’s really in charge?  Is Jesus Christ the Lord of our lives?

It’s a good and valid question for us to ask; because the truth is that so many of us make the claim that Christ has dominion over our lives even as it’s very clear that our allegiance, not to mention our attention, is somewhere else altogether!  I recently read of a Gallup poll done a few years back that reported that while 86% of all Americans consider themselves to be Christian, less than half of those knew who preached the Sermon on the Mount.  Likewise, it was reported that while 60% of the country was in church on Easter Sunday that particular year, one out of four people who were in church were unable to say what Easter actually celebrates!  Amazing!  Have that many of us really let our faith so fade into the background of our lives to have it become little more than yearly tradition and the occasional pomp and circumstance?  Is it true that we are so divided by all the many allegiances of daily lives – social, political, economic,  even spiritual – that we’ve ignored the one allegiance that really matters?

I pray that we not allow this to happen!  The Rev. Wiley Stephens, a Methodist pastor and writer, says that the true challenge of the kingdom  is  “to let God be God… in you; to let God be God… in your church; to let God be God… in your neighborhood; to let God be God… in your job, in your family, and… in your world.”  For our lives to have true meaning and purpose; indeed, for our world to garner the love and peace that it so hungers for, we need to acknowledge just exactly who’s really in charge; who truly and wholly rules our lives!  We need to be asking ourselves what God wants us to do – with our days, with our lives, with our families, with our community, with our church, with our world – and we need to be listening to Jesus, who the Lord of our very lives, for the answers.  For it is in the power of his rule that we experience his kingdom in our midst.

Friends, this seems to me to be of particular importance now as we come to the close of this year’s celebration of Thanksgiving Day and run headlong into the Advent and Christmas seasons.  After all, what does this time of the year seek to bring to us if not an increased awareness of God’s abundance through the ages, a sense of his power and presence in this moment, and the declaration that God will also be with us in the future that has yet to unfold.  Holiday traditions and family gatherings make us nostalgic about past blessings, but, ideally they should also raise in us a great sense expectation of God’s loving activity in what’s to come.  Pontius Pilate, for all his power and prestige, could not begin to see that; even as God’s greatest activity, the gift of his Son and our Savior, stood helplessly before him, Pilate could he could not see the greater truth of God’s plan.

My prayer for all of us today in the busy season that’s unfolding before us is that we not miss that truth – God’s truth – and that in all the comings and goings of our lives, in and through the celebrations and the sorrows, today and in all of our tomorrows, we will recognize and affirm by our very lives that Christ rules over us and over all.

Rejoice, dear friends!  The Lord is King!

And for this and so much more, thanks be to God.


c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on November 26, 2017 in Jesus, Sermon, Spiritual Truths


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