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Archive for June, 2009

How are you?

How do you answer that question?  You’re going through the mill all week, sipping a cuppa after the service, and someone asks cheerily ‘How are you?’  What do you say?

We’ve had experience of chronic illness for many years now.  I confess that when people ask about it we don’t really know what to say.  I know other friends who have degenerative illnesses.  And every week the questions come at church ‘How are you?  Any progress?’  And they answer ‘Yes indeed – the illness has progressed… and barring divine intervention it will continue to progress.’  The person frowns and asks ‘So the doctors haven’t helped?’  And of course the doctors have helped… as much as they can.  But…

– …’Oh, because I read in ‘Chintz!’ magazine about a woman who recovered after eating a diet of Goji berries and Quinoa – perhaps you could try that.’

– ‘Maybe!’

– ‘Give that a go and let me know next week.’

– ‘Look forward to it!’

Don’t get me wrong, I know the trouble from the other end.  In our home group we have a woman who’s struggled with insomnia for 50 years. Fifty years!  But when she reveals this, what is our response? 

“Have you tried a hot bath with a drop of lavender?”

“Long walks in the sea air.”

“Listen to the shipping forecast”

“A drop of badger blood on the pillow…”

She shows extraordinary patience, listening to our home spun wisdom for a good quarter of an hour.  Eventually she says, “I have struggled with this for 50 years you know”. 

Hmmm. 

Our trouble is we don’t know what we can offer unless it’s a quick fix.  So when we run out of fixes all we can think to do is offer prayer.  Which is good I suppose.  But even then – what’s our goal?  The fix!  And how are we treating the other person?  What are our interactions all about?  Solving problems? 

Here are some questions for us: 

Can we handle sickness that doesn’t yield to the quick fix? 

Can we face the struggles that aren’t solved by the tried and trusted common sense we take pride in? 

Can we enter into the struggles of others and not make ‘the fix’ into the goal?

Can we simply journey with others in their mess and allow the Spirit to encourage us both in the Christ who is known best in the storm?

And, on the other end of things, when people ask us about our long-term stuggles, what can we say?

I’ve recently taken to one particular line that I picked up in a Tim Keller sermon, I’d love to hear any you have.  His was this:

– How are you?

– Nothing a resurrection won’t fix!

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They called the early church’s greatest preacher John ‘Chrysostom’ meaning ‘John Golden Mouth’.  He reigned supreme in the style of preaching from that era which involved weaving together a rich tapestry of biblical images.  These preachers simply inhabited and spoke the language of the Scriptures, fitting together themes from all corners of the canon.

Friends, Golden-Blogger is among us.  And his name is Dev

Go and read Redemption through Exile.  And, if you’re not a regular reader – get cracking on the others!

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There are two things that will really mess you up in life.  Getting married and becoming a Christian.  You can poodle along quite contentedly before either of these states.  But once you enter marriage, or once Christ enters you – life as you know it is over.

I know a good number of people who have developed and/or exacerbated serious emotional and psychological problems upon entering one or both of these states. 

How come?  Well here’s one thought.  In both you have the unconditional presence of another.  Not even your sins can keep people at bay now.  In fact now sins just become the occasion for a much deeper engagement.  Conditionality used to keep your sins underground and your critics distant.  When things were conditional you knew that the presence of love in your life was directly related to your ability to keep unloveliness hidden.  Now you have unconditional – and therefore inescapable – presence.  

Ironically it’s not law that shines a torchlight into our basements.  It’s grace.  There’s no hiding place from unconditional love.  

Barth used to say ‘God’s grace shatters men.’  George Hunsinger wrote a book on Barth’s theology called ‘Disruptive Grace.’  That’s the true nature of covenant relationships.  Yes they are the context in which true growth and godliness occur.  But only because first of all they totally mess you up.

What do we expect in Christian discipleship? What do we expect in marriage?  I say prepare for massive disturbance – and I mean disturbance in the fullest sense of the word.

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Just some fairly random thoughts on what I’d like to see more of in my own preaching and the preaching of others…

 

  1. Thou shalt worship Christ from the pulpit.  The priestly task of declaring the gospel of God (Rom 15:16) entaileth a twofold direction to the sermon.  The preacher not only standeth before a congregation to declare truth, but before the Lord to worship Him.  Of course ‘worship’ does not mean putting on airs – feigning the manner of a Cranmer, Spurgeon or Piper.  It does mean happy and humble gratitude in the presence of Jesus.  And of course this twofoldness is accomplished in one and the same task – proclaiming ‘Worthy is the Lamb.’
  2. Thou shalt communicate, through both content and style, a tangible sense of the newness of God’s revelation.  May such phrases as these perish from our lips: ‘Of course we all knoweth do we not…’  We really do not knoweth.  We need to be toldeth.  Hence preaching.  Therefore preach with eager and childlike enthusiasm for the surprising and always disruptive grace of God.
  3. Thy tone shalt be declarative and devotional.
  4. Thy method shalt be expositional and christocentric.  (Of course expositional does not necessitate ‘verse by verse’)
  5. Thy fevered entreaty shalt not be ‘DO’ so much as ‘LOOK’.
  6. Thou shalt not apologize for the word, whether for its supposed harshness or obscurity or backwardness or unbelievability.  In truth the word is capable of defending itself on all these counts.
  7. Thou shalt not go searching for illustrations.  Thy passage no doubt has plenty of good ones of its own.  Anyone that spendeth time looking for stories to ‘lighten up their talk’ must be cut off from the congregation.
  8. Thou shalt not go searching for jokes.  There is no doubt plenty of humour in the Scriptures themselves without you searching lamepreachergags.com.  Anyone found guilty of the needless and clumsy insertion of ‘a joke’ shall be stoned to death.  Show no mercy.
  9. Thou shalt not preach that ‘Christ is God’.  Thou shalt preach that God is only and always the God revealed in Christ.
  10. Thou shalt not lift up the Lamb because thou art supposed to but because thou canst do no other.

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I’m absolutely blown away by this.

What gets me is the combination of sadness without any self-pity.

It’s utterly tragic but not told as a tragedy.  Somehow the whole thing is a celebration shot through with praise, thanksgiving and gospel hope.

Praise Jesus.

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For years I prayed for the fruit of the Spirit every day.  (Galatians 5:22f)  Yet, looking back, I prayed for the fruit in an altogether fleshly way.

How so?  Well basically my prayers were petitions for the moral character of ‘love, joy, peace…’ as abstract qualities. I would judge my own spiritual walk that week by how loving, joyful, peaceful… I had been. In short I had turned the fruit of the Spirit into a check-list of works which I either did or didn’t practice that week.

One morning, as I was praying for the fruit, I got an image of the Spirit coming to my door with a huge basket laden with choice fruits.  And my response was to say ‘Thanks for bringing the fruit.  Just leave them inside the door and I’ll see you later!’

I wanted the fruit not the Spirit.  I wanted the fruit apart from the Spirit.  Yet the fruit is fruit of the Spirit. It grows organically from a relationship with Him.  Henceforward I prayed for the Spirit Himself.

How quickly we turn gospel into law.
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Eat Dirt Man Eater!

Satan must eat dust all his days (Gen 3:14)

Man is dust (Gen 3:19)

Satan is a maneater (1 Pet 5:8)

Yet Christ will join man to crush the maneater (Gen 3:15)

He does this by being Man eaten (John 6:51)

Only in this way does He swallow His enemies (1 Cor 15:54)

Those who don’t eat (with) Christ get eaten (Rev 19:18)

Those who eat Christ join Him in crushing the maneater (Rom 16:20)

In this way Christ humbles Himself in order to be exalted (Luke 14:11)

Meanwhile Satan, who exalted himself will be humbled (Ezek 28:11-19)

Eating dust is the lot of the defeated enemy (Ps 72:9)

And Satan will eat dirt all the days of his life (Micah 7:17; Rev 20:10)

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So eat dirt man eater!  There’s one Man you couldn’t swallow.  He’s swallowed you.  Our food will be the Man eaten.  And you will eat dirt forever.

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Fake Purse Ninjas

Happy Friday

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bubblebath

Sermon Audio Click Here

How do you think of 1 Corinthians 13?  Is it a warm, relaxing bubble bath?  Does it make you forget your cares and give you the warm fuzzies?

antiseptic

I’m here to tell you, this chapter is not a bubble bath.  It’s a scalding hot bath full of antiseptic!

And we are covered in cuts and bruises and deep wounds.  And 1 Corinthians 13 hurts.  It hurts!

That’s the kind of wake-up call Paul wanted the Cornithians to have.  No Corinthian read this chapter and thought, ‘How sweet!.  They thought ‘Yikes!  I am in deep, deep trouble here.’

There are three paragraphs in this chapter.  Paragraph 1 will put the fear of God into us, paragraph 2 will make us despair of ourselves, but only then will paragraph 3 give us some hope.

There’s hope in the end, but Paul wants us to soak long and hard in some painful truths.

Listen here.  Or keep reading…

(more…)

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In preaching through 1 Corinthians recently I listened to a lot of sermons on chapters 9 and 10.   Two themes in particular were hammered home by preachers. 

In chapter 9 there’s the olympic training regimes (v24-27).  In chapter 10 there’s ‘glorifying God’ in all circumstances (v31).  But so often the context of these verses is ignored.

So in chapter 9 we read this:

24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

That’ll preach won’t it?  Go into strict training people!  There’s a medal held out.  Be an Olympian Christian.

And what did all these sermons mean by being an Olympian Christian?  Personal holiness.  Devotional disciplines.  You know the drill.

But what is the context?  Verses 19-23 – becoming all things to all men so that by all possible means we may save some.  It’s a missionary context.  Beating our bodies and going into strict training is a description of how we order our lives with evangelistic priorities.  This Olympian spirituality is an outwardly focussed determination to move out into the world for the salvation of others.  That’s quite a different sermon.

In chapter 10 we have that famous verse:

31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

What does this mean?  How would it look like lived out?  Well if you listen to these sermons it’s mainly about personal holiness.  Devotional disciplines.  You know the drill.

But again, what is the context?  It’s eating and drinking in the context of food sacrificed to idols.  The context is a world full of unChristian and anti-Christian cultures and practices which, nonetheless, the Christian is compelled to engage.  And so verse 33 says:

I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

It’s about adapting all things, even eating and drinking, to the end that Jews, Greeks and the church of God is built up (v32).  Effectively verse 33 explains verse 31.  Doing all for the glory of God means doing all for the good of many, so that they may be saved.  This makes sense of the ‘glory of God’ which is not a static quality but an outgoing salvific movement. 

To have your life ordered by God’s glory is not simply to do your daily devotions – it’s to live in outgoing invitation for the salvation of others.  Verse 31 is not some abstract call to look pious at all times.  We know what 10:31 looks like – it looks like Paul’s ministry.  It looks like 9:19-23.  It looks like the missionary determination to become all things to all men that some may be saved. 

So please, keep the context in mind.  And remember, the context is mission.

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What’s wrong with solo sex?

Here CCEF has an 11 minute podcast on masturbation.  While there are some good points (like husbands prefering solo-sex to talking to their wives about the bedroom), it takes that age-old evangelical line: the problem’s all in the mind.

Have you ever heard the line, “If you can do it thinking about a brick, go for your life”?  I hear people giving this advice all the time.  As though the problem was simply one of fantasies.  And as though the body doesn’t really matter.

Of course in the event of an affair I’ve yet to hear of a spouse placated by the line ‘It’s alright honey I was thinking of you all along.’  So why this uncritical assumption that the body’s not really important, it’s the thoughts that count?

Let me state my position – you can discuss it:

The physical acting out of solo-sex is as damaging as any mental fantasy that may or may not accompany it. 

Masturbation is the very incarnation of homo incurvatus in se (man (or woman) curved in on himself (or herself)) – which simply is the essence of sin.  It is to enact an anti-gospel / anti-Christ proclamation.  It is the blasphemous dramatization of Christ remaining in heaven to please Himself or the church closed to her Lord but indulging her own desires.  It is taking an inherently mutual and other-centred activity and perverting it into self-adoration and self-service.  

In all this, I haven’t begun to consider the fantasies that may or may not attend masturbation.  This is simply a consideration of the physical act of solo-sex.  In and of itself it is an anti-gospel proclamation.  In an of itself it is an indulgence of and encouragement to selfishness, closing us off from Christ and others.  This alone makes masturbation wrong. 

I just don’t understand a position that says – “Do it with your body but beware your thought life.” 

To think that the body does not matter is to adopt a position completely opposite to Scripture.  The body is not an amoral zone.  The body is the very battleground between the old realm of Adam and the in-breaking realm of the Spirit.  Yes our minds need renewing (Rom 12:1) and this is the well-spring of our transformation.  But the flesh is not therefore neutral.  Quite the opposite.  Our Adamic bodies are precisely the root of our problems until resurrection and precisely the context of our discipleship.  Bringing our bodies into subjection to Christ is a massive biblical theme (cf Rom 5-8!).  

So why do we miss it in so much evangelical spirituality?  You know… the same evangelical spirituality that rarely or barely touches on the wallet or the wardrobe or diet.  The same spirituality that’s neurotically suspicious of the sacraments.  That same spirituality that never teaches on fasting, let along practices it? 

What lies have we swallowed to believe that discipleship is only in the mind?

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Having thought a bit about preaching this week, here is the preacher who has helped me see the nature of true preaching more than anyone. 

PaulBlackham

 

Here Blackham is at his best unpacking the Sermon on the Mount at Tarleton Farm Fellowship.  (Also see the “Other Sermons” tab above for some brilliant All Souls sermons from him).

 

Matthew 5:1-12 – Blessed are the Spiritually Rubbish

Matthew 5:13-20 – Making a difference

Matthe 5:21-26 – Violence 

Matthew 5:27-32 – Sex

Matthew 5:33-37 – Truth

Matthew 5:38-48 – Revenge and Love

Matthew 6:1-4 – Generosity

Matthew 6:5-8 – Secret prayer

Matthew 6:10 – Your kingdom come

 Matthew 6:11 – Daily Bread

Matthew 6:13 – Deliver us from the evil one

Matthew 6:16-18 – Fasting

 

Matthew 7:1-7 – Judging others

 … More to come…

 

Other topical talks focussing particularly on the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus and Money

Jesus and Power

Jesus and Sex

Jesus and Violence

 

More talks from Tarleton Fellowship (including sermons covering most of John and Acts)

 

Three favourites from the above are Jesus and Money, Matthew 5:27-32 – Sex and Matthew 6:13 – Deliver us from the evil one.

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Chicklit and chick flicks are not pornography for women, pornography is pornography for women.

Ros Clarke writes on the two-fold error of saying popular romance functions as porn for women. 

A) One in three visitors to porn sites are women.

B) Stop dissing romance – it’s at the very heart of the gospel!

She says it much better though – so go and read.

She follows up with some stats on women and porn here and here.

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Christ must be proclaimed biblically.

Nothing has been said yet about the character of the preacher.  This has been deliberate.  It’s not the character of the preacher but the character of the word that is determinative.  It’s not ultimately the skills, gifts or even godliness of the preacher that will bring the word home to hearers.  The Second Helvetic Confession continues its article on preaching by saying…

… the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.

Whatever we say about the character, gifting or expertise of the preacher it must begin with these immovable indicatives.  The preacher is, first, recipient (and a thoroughly unworthy recipient) of God’s overflowing revelation.  We gratefully hear this word, knowing its divine source and character.  Preachers though find themselves carried along in the same movement to testify to this same Word that holds them captive. 

Thus the preacher is never a person capable of preaching.  Really the true mark of the preacher is that they are incapable of doing otherwise.

 “If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, indeed I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9)

 

Conclusion

This paper has sought to provide an answer to the ‘How can?’ of preaching.  Hopefully, along the way, some of the ‘How to?’ has been addressed as well.  Yet, in the end, a true understanding of preaching should always propel us to the most urgent question: ‘How can we not?’ 

“I am compelled to preach.  Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16);

“Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak.” (2 Cor 4:13)

“The love of Christ controls us …  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us…  (2 Cor 5:14-21)

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The whole paper is here.

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“I wish I never sinned” said the Israelite at the head of the queue.

The others waiting to make their sacrifices nodded.

The priest narrowed his gaze.  “Why do you wish you never sinned?”

The Israelite was amazed that the priest would ask.  The answer was so obvious it hardly needed saying.  “So I don’t have to keep returning to this altar.”

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Christ must be proclaimed biblically

Hopefully it is not a new thought that Christ is the Word of God.  Perhaps, though, it is a new thought to consider preaching as the word of God.  Therefore some may wonder whether we have lost the vital importance of Scripture as the word of God.

Absolutely not.  Without Scripture we have no Christ.  Without Scripture we have no preaching.  Yet here is the irony. When the preacher is viewed simply as ‘explainer and applier’ of God’s word (the bible), this results in a lower view of Scripture.

If preaching is simply explanation and application of the bible then it’s difficult to avoid the impression that the Bible stands in need of our interpretive and psychological expertise: the Bible needs explaining as an obscure text and it needs applying as a distant text.  On this understanding preaching either doubts or dilutes the authority of the Bible.  It doubts it if the preacher ‘comes between’ word and congregation as the word’s helper.  It dilutes it if the preacher ‘comes between’ simply to pass on Scriptural information.  In either case we are left with this question:  Why should the preacher even attempt to offer words in addition to the written word?  If, as the reformers contended so fiercely, the Bible is perspicuous, why should the preacher take up thirty minutes of the service but the Bible reading only three?  If all that can be called ‘word of God’ exists in the Scriptures alone, how do we dare to embellish with our own blessed thoughts?

Here is the problem: if the preacher is reduced to a bible-expert we inadvertently reduce the bible to a difficult text.  And simultaneously the preacher is raised up to stand in the gap.  The ‘scholarly’ among us will dissect and expose the text with expert exposition.  The ‘dynamic’ among us will ‘enliven’ the Word with rhetorical flair, persuasive apologetics and well-aimed application.  However, in either case, whether as explainers or appliers, preachers become essential aids for a word that seems less than ‘living and active.’

In all this we communicate the idea that the bible is actually obscure, boring, weak, vague and disjointed.  So then the preacher’s task is making the obscure clear; making the ancient relevant; enlivening the dead letter; making pointed application where we find the bible too vague and providing cohesion to the disjoined Scriptures – bringing things back to ‘the gospel’ or ‘the kingdom’ or ‘the cross’ etc.  Yet the bible is already perspicuous, already living and active, already a persuasive word, already a pointed (application-making) address, already a witness to Christ. 

Perhaps the greatest need for preachers today is to understand the significance of this ‘already.’ 

We think of the bible as an obscure and distant text given to the individual believer for the sake of their personal morality. On this understanding the preacher comes along merely to strengthen Scriptural admonishments to piety.  Yet the bible was not given for the prayer closet but the pulpit.  The Scriptures are the Spirit’s living testimony to the Son, addressed to the church and intended for proclamation to the world. 

What then is the role of the preacher?  We don’t ‘stand in the gap’.  We stand in a stream.  We don’t draw out the living waters.  The Scriptures overflow.  Already the written word has this out-going character.  God’s word cannot be chained (2 Tim 2:9).  Preaching is simply the expression of the Scriptures’ own uncontainable witness.

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Happy Friday

Telemarketers beware

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Go to theology network for the full paper on preaching.  I’ll post it here in chunks.  Be great to talk about it if you want to comment.

 

We’ve made the claim that preaching is God’s word when Christ is proclaimed biblically.  Now we will tease out some implications of this central conviction:

 

Christ must be proclaimed biblically.

We proclaim Him (Colossians 1:28).  The point of the sermon is not to inspire certain feelings, to convey certain doctrines, to enjoin certain ethics, to dissect certain passages.  The point of the proclaimed word is precisely the point of the written word – to witness the eternal Word (See John 5:36-47).  We don’t preach Luke or Ecclesiastes.  We preach Christ from Luke or Ecclesiastes.

Perhaps the Lord’s Supper provides a helpful analogy (it too is proclamation – 1 Cor 11:26).  Just as the point of  communion is the receiving of Christ by faith, so the point of the sermon is the same.  He is as vital for sinners as bread to the famished.  He is as available to sinners as the bread on the table.  And in preaching, as in the sacraments, He is handed over to sinners for their nourishment.  Where Christ is received by faith, proclamation has done its work.  Where Christ is not graciously held out to the congregation the preacher has spoken in vain and the people go hungry. 

What does this mean for the ‘application’ of the sermon

Often ‘application’ is taken to mean distilling the text into timeless doctrinal propositions to be turned into contemporary moral injunctions.

 preaching 1

Application on this understanding is a discrete portion of the sermon.  Once the preacher is done explaining, then come exhortations about our practical response. Usually the application is something along the lines of ‘read your bible, pray, evangelize.’ Occasionally it’s ‘Give money, cut out the porn, volunteer more.’

Now besides being a suspect view of sanctification, this betrays a deficient view of revelation.  Here the bible is ‘God’s instruction manual for life.’ The preacher is the expert coach.  And Christ?  Where is Christ on this understanding? 

On the analogy with communion, such preaching is like the minister pressing into our hands not bread but a ‘To do’ list.  We leave the communion rail (or rise from the sermon) not so much savouring Christ as resolving to improve.  Not glorying in His work but plotting our own.

 But what if we took to heart the theology of revelation outlined here?  In that case application would be by the pointed driving home of the gospel. 

 

 preaching 2

On this model, application is not what we must do on account of the word.  Rather, application is what the word itself is doing to us and in us.  The Word is being applied to our hearts in lively, surprising, evocative, nourishing ways to the end that He might be trusted.  We hear in order to believe (Rom 10:14).  This is the work of God – faith (John 6:29).   The work of God for which the preacher aims is not so much what the congregation will do on Monday morning having been inspired by the word.  The work of God is what God Himself does to the congregation right there in the Sunday sermon.

Application then is the Spirit’s work in driving home the Christ whom we proclaim.  It is a work which we cannot perform as preachers but to which we are called nonetheless.  In prayerful dependence we follow the way of witness in the Scriptures as they point to Christ.  And we point, too.  With excitement, with passion, with entreaty.  And we say as Moses did regarding the bronze serpent: Look and live!

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