On reading, and books for January 2008

I love to read, and those who know me are aware that I read heavily: I regularly have multiple books that I'm reading concurrently, and I probably have averaged 50-75 books a year for the past decade and more. (I first realized that I had a higher-than-average tendency for reading when I set a personal goal to finish 25 books in a year my sophomore year in college and my friends and family finding this quite surprising; I hit 25 around August that year.)

As a result, I have a high awareness of good books on a variety of subjects. I've been told that I have the spiritual gift of
bibliography-- I almost always have a book recommendation for a particular problem or issue. And, as an extension of that (and following in the pattern of several friends and others whose blogs I read), I thought I would start logging my reading habits here.

Most months, I finish at least two or three books during the month and begin others. Every now and then, I hit a peculiar month: while I continue to read, I don't actually finish any books! Whether its because I've spent a good bit of time writing, I've been reading magazines or other periodicals, or I've been reading parts of lots of books, I just don't make a lot of progress through any single volume.

January was one of those months. Thus, my first post sharing my reading with you is somewhat anti-climactic, I freely admit.

Just so that I don't leave it at that, here's the list of books that I am currently reading:

  • The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott

  • The Shadow of the Cross by Walter Chantry

  • The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright

  • The Attributes of God by Arthur W. Pink

  • How Your Church Family Works by Peter L. Steinke

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Why I am not an activist

There are a lot of great causes that I think are important. Be they social causes, political movements, efforts for promotion of ideas, many people are involved in many things that give value to our culture and world. Some of them are things that, in another life, I would be willing to step into and personally assign my name to, either in support or in opposition.

But I won't do it. Not now, and not as long as the Lord has called me to serve Him in pastoral ministry.

A Pastor is, by profession and function, something of a "face" for the church, especially his local congregation. In some cases this is taken way too far-- and in almost every case, it is something that Pastors must be diligent to keep in check. They are not the church, or even
in charge of the church, but they are the most prominent leaders in the church. And in many people's minds, they are the face that people think of when they think about the church. This is even more true outside of the church than it is inside it.

Thus, as a Pastor I
must not be an activist. Why? Because an activist puts a priority on something other than the centrality of the Gospel and the faithful teaching of Scripture.

This isn't always bad-- there are times when an issue needs to be the front-and-center concern, and the Gospel's relationship to it must be secondary in that discussion. There are issues of political or social change that the Scripture doesn't directly speak to, and those who try to make the discussion all about the Scriptural principle that indirectly relates only serve to muddy the waters.

(Let me make this disclaimer: I'm not saying that Scripture is insufficient to give guidance for godly thinking and living in all spheres of life; Scripture
IS sufficient for that. But Scripture isn't exhaustive in offering prescriptive conceptual thinking about all issues that face us today, and it is irresponsible to assert that it does.)

Some examples: while Scripture offers help in understanding the concept of just war, it doesn't directly speak to whether a particular war or military action is just. Scripture does discuss the stewardship of our world and environment, but it doesn't offer direct teaching about global warming. And although Scripture speaks to how a believer ought to behave in relation to his governmental officials, it doesn't address whether we should be in favor of states' rights over federalism.

And here's where the divide comes for me, as a Pastor: if my charge is to proclaim the truth of Scripture in season and out of season; if I am to preach, not myself, but Christ as Lord and myself as a servant; if I am to know nothing before my flock except Christ and Him crucified-- if these are what I am to be about, then I
MUST not be an activist. To take an activist position would be to turn my focus away from this charge.

If the church is charged with demonstrating the historical marks of the church-- Word, Sacrament, and discipline-- and only that, then a church must not assume a particular position on an activist cause. And I, as the Pastor and "face" of the church, must not do so either.

Scripture DOES teach a lot about how we might think about social and political issues, and over the course of my ministry (and even over the course of the next year or so) I will address these as they present themselves in Scripture. But I must stop short of waging judgment on particular political leaders, individual social causes, or specific political or social issues (and whether I agree or disagree with them).

I have opinions on them, and I'll even share
some of my observations at times. If I'm doing my job well, however, you'll walk away without certainty about what my exact political and social positions are. That is as it should be-- because I am not an activist, I am a Pastor.
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News round-up

Well, a lot happened recently, and even today. Here's a quick glimpse at what is going on...

Memphis ranks #1 again this week. The Tigers continue their amazing season; will they ever lose? (Hickory Withe insiders say, "no.")

Obama gains major ground in the Democratic primary. Whatever your political convictions, you have to admit that Barack Obama's campaign is building a head of steam that (for now, at least) looks like it might carry him all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Louisiana Presbytery
faces a formal indictment, and consequently Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church withdraws from the PCA. Personally, I see this more as a call to mourning than a resolution to the controversy that the Federal Vision has become.

Baptist group woos moderate views. Does this strike anyone else as ironic?

President Bush predicts "no recession." I don't understand how $300 per household will really prevent one (especially since, if you adjust the value of the dollar in comparison to international currencies, we are already in a recession!), but here's hoping he's right.

Tiger wins another, ties Arnold Palmer's record. He's amazing-- but why anyone is surprised by this, I don't know.

Legos bricks turn 50. Just about everything-- including a Lego church-- has been built out of these gems. Happy Birthday, Lego!
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Ministry, church, statistics, and the U.S. as a mission field

I overheard a young first-year seminary student talking with a couple of others in the bookstore a few years ago. He was talking about his sense of call to ministry, and they asked him if he wanted to be a Pastor when he finished. Yes, he did, but he quickly (and haughtily) clarified: "I'll go overseas to do missions, of course. The U.S. is way too full of churches and Pastors."

This video is a good presentation of a bunch of amazing statistics about the church in the U.S., and in a matter of minutes utterly refutes this young man's jaded viewpoint. (HWPC folks, may I ask that you be sure to take a few minutes to watch this?) What's clear from the data presented is that the local church has never held a more important place in the community, even if most of that community doesn't realize it.

While it is clear that the statistics are presented with an intent to promote church planting, they offer great insight into the mission and importance of established churches, as well. In my view, those figures regarding the established church's less effective outreach are simultaneously an indictment and a call to action.

What struck you as the more interesting aspects of that presentation?
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Immigration and the baby boom

Two of the big debates that resurface every time there's an election are immigration and Social Security. Everyone seems especially concerned that Social Security will face difficult sustainability concerns, particularly now that the "Baby Boomers" are reaching retirement age. There are figures and documentation that show how drastically the system has changed over the years-- the ratio of taxpayers to Social Security recipients has practically inverted since the program's inception. Naturally, there's a question about whether we can continue to pay everyone the rates we are with much fewer taxpayers on the other side of the ratio.

In a different (seemingly unrelated) discussion, immigration is a perennial concern. Most people who promote tightening immigration restrictions seem to argue one (or both!) of two sides: either the concern is that an increase in immigrants will result in great upsurge of welfare, Medicaid, and Medicare recipients, or that the immigrants will rob existing citizens of jobs-- especially low-wage ones. I even recall hearing both arguments made by one politician at the same time, which could be contradictory since wage-earners are often not the primary recipients of social programs.

I was talking with Russ Campbell this morning, and I echoed
the sentiment that my friend Jon once mentioned, wondering why no one ever thought another baby boom would solve the Social Security problem. After all, if the problem is essentially not enough taxpayers, one obvious solution seems to be to increase the number of taxpayers! As Russ and I talked about it, we had the thought (mostly Russ's) that one benefit a looser immigration system would bring would be an instant increase in the number of taxpaying citizens. Welcome to the United States!

Obviously there would need to be some restrictions, particularly for older immigrants-- but these are largely already in place, since no current citizen is vested until they've paid into the system for 10 years. And you (allegedly) get back something in proportion to what you contributed anyway; that's why we get those statements every so often that remind us
how much cash we've dumped down a hole how much we've contributed to our retirement future.

Would this work? I'd love to hear feedback on why this idea shouldn't be some candidate's winning ticket to the White House this year...
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Wildlife Watch, 1/25/08

Well, the deer returned this morning-- this time with a young buck trailing behind the six does. The were a bit nervous, though-- I'm not sure what spooked them, but they stayed close to the edge of the woods and moved pretty quickly.
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Podcasts I listen to

Not long ago, Lou and I set up his iPod to download our church's sermon podcast automatically (which, by the way, is best done by following the instructions on the Media page). Around that same time, another good friend got an iPod and discovered podcasts, including NPR's excellent Speaking of Faith show. Both seemed interested in knowing other good podcasts to check out, so I wanted to offer this quick guide to some that I enjoy.

First, a quick definition: for those who don't know, a "podcast" is a specialized sort of audio file on the internet that is designed to be downloaded very easily. Sort of like an audio blog, they are set up so that your computer can be notified when there is new content (and can even download that content automatically). If you have a portable music player like an iPod, you might find that podcasts (short for "iPod broadcasts") are a great way to get new content and learn things.

I listen to a pretty wide variety of podcasts. I listen to them while I'm driving to and from the church, on my way to visit someone, on trips, and even while I work out. Here's what's on my iPod. [NOTE: most links will take you directly to the iTunes page where you can subscribe or download samples for free.]

Sermons, Bible Study, and Such
City Church of San Francisco. My friend Fred Harrell is the Senior Pastor at this fine church, and they always have good (and challenging) messages.
Trinity Presbyterian Church of Charlottesville, VA. Another friend, Greg Thompson is also an emerging voice in the PCA and one of our best thinkers.
RUF Old Miss (Les Newsom). There are lots of great preachers in RUF; I think Les is one of the best.
Let My People Think (RZIM). Ravi Zacharias, a teacher and apologist, regularly offers new ways to think about familiar concepts.
The White Horse Inn. Michael Horton and friends provide thoughtful discussion about thinking biblically about issues facing the church today.
Mars Hill Audition. Designed to be an introduction to the more regular Mars Hill Audio Journal, Audition is a great sample of the good stuff Mars Hill Audio is doing.

Work-Related Stuff
Mac OS Ken. This brief weekday show gives me a great update on the latest news related to Apple Mac computers and other Apple happenings.
The Mayberry Driven Church. I appreciate the blog that accompanies this podcast frequently; they don't offer podcasts frequently, but when they do, it's very helpful and interesting.
Manager Tools. Anyone who works with people (isn't that about everyone?) should give this one a listen. Practical help and solid advice.
David Allen Podcast. David's "GTD" is a rich set of productivity principles. Occasionally David or one of his execs does an audio recording, and it shows up here. Always useful.

Other Regular Podcasts
The Splendid Table. The cook in me loves this weekly American Public Media production, which is always full of great cooking and baking information and trivia.
Car Talk. Both funny and informative, Tom and Ray have long been a favorite listen of mine; now I listen anytime I want.
The Clark Howard Show. I've never found more practical wisdom about consumer living than with Clark. He's humble, thoughtful, and helpful.

Podcasts I'm Trying Out
Speaking of Faith. Another APM production, this one looks at religion in our culture and discusses it honestly.
News from Lake Wobegon. Garrison Keillor is one of nation's great storytellers, using words in ways that most writers (including me) aspire to emulate.
Lawrence Lessig. Larry Lessig is one of the best presenters today; his podcast is a constant model of presentation goodness.
Cook's Illustrated. I'm smitten with this magazine, and now I can enjoy a video podcast from them as well.
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Wildlife Watch, 1/18/08

The does came back this morning-- six of them crossed the big field at a walking pace. I don't blame them-- it was a beautiful morning (if a bit brisk!) and a great time for a walk.
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A new series

I recently read a book on the nuts and bolts of pastoral ministry by two seasoned Pastors called On Being a Pastor. There were many great lessons from this book (thanks to my friend David Dennis for the book recommendation), and one key take-away was regarding preaching a series.

They commended the practice in general-- and affirmed its value to a congregation. But they also recommended that Pastors take regular breaks from a series, offering a change of pace and direction for a time.
One danger of expository preaching-- especially when we begin-- is the tendency to be too long in one book or subject. Expository does not need to be synonymous with exhaustive and exhausting!
We've been working through the book of Luke since I began at Hickory Withe. While we started with a brief (4-week) series on the Parable of the Lost Son, we've spent every Sunday morning in Luke since October 14! By mid-November, we started with Luke 1:1 and will finish chapter 3 on Sunday. We've studied the foundations of the book, the announcements of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, and the events of those births.

We're approaching a natural break in Luke-- in the middle of chapter 4, the end of Jesus' preparation for ministry concludes; starting with 4:14, Jesus begins his public ministry. Luke's account of the public ministry of Jesus continues until chapter 19, where the account of the triumphal entry begins the account of the passion of Christ. Clay Harrington will join us next week, and will preach on Luke 4:1-13-- the last text on Jesus' preparation for ministry. This will be our twelfth week of sermons in Luke, done in sequential order.

At that point, I plan to take a break from the sequential preaching of Luke's gospel, and will begin a new, 14-week series on the cross. This series will carry us through the liturgical seasons of Lent and Easter, and is fitting for both. Following that series, we'll return to Luke to begin working through the public ministry of Jesus (though we'll probably take another break down the line before we finish that section of Luke!).

This series will be topical, though most or all of the sermons will still be expository sermons. Here's the plan for the series, week by week:
  1. The cross as central to Chrstianity
  2. What did Christ die for?
  3. The accomplishment of the cross
  4. How forgiveness works
  5. The price of our sin
  6. God's substitutionary atonement
  7. Salvation for sinners through the cross
  8. God revealing himself through the cross
  9. Evil is overcome through the cross
  10. The community of God as a celebration of the cross
  11. Understanding ourselves through the cross
  12. Self-denial and giving of ourselves in response to the cross
  13. The cross enables us to love our enemies
  14. The cross and our suffering, the cross and our glory
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Princess Molly

Over Christmas, my step-sister Louise played princess with Molly. This was the first time, really, that Molly had played princess to that extent, and all of us were a little bit surprised by how much she took to it!

But should we have been? I've been thinking about that, especially since my sister Ann Louise asked me (and others) what we thought about it. I'll try to summarize my thoughts.

The Scriptures clearly portray believers as sons and daughters of the King-- adopted, true, but sons and daughters nevertheless. In fact, when you read the accounts of how the last days will be for believers-- especially in the first part of Revelation 20-- it is clear that, as the holy children of God, set apart for His glory, we will somehow reign with Him in that glory.

What also appears to be true-- as it is latent in the words of all Scripture-- is that we were intended to reign with God from the very beginning. In part, this is what it means to be created in His image. We get this, and long for this, the most when we pause to consider how un-natural our sin is. That is what Plantinga meant when he wrote his marvelous book Not the Way It's Supposed to Be-- that "shalom," true peace and harmony with God, includes a sense of the holiness and majesty that we only see shadows of.

This idea is so rich, and has such broad application to the church. Individually, it means that, when we sin and wallow in the lowliness of instant gratification, forsaking our majesty, we ought to think, "I'm better than that!" Our means to obedience is God's grace, but our motivation for obedience is not only His grace but His dignity bestowed on us in creation, and restored in us through the cross. Corporately, it requires us to re-consider the "us vs. them" mentality that so permeates contemporary Evangelical Christianity. Yes, we are "beggars telling other beggars where to find bread" but only in the sense that the prince and the pauper traded places, and the prince got his first taste of what it means to be a beggar.

This applies to the question directly, because if this is true-- in other words, if what the Scriptures say about "the way it is supposed to be"-- then we were made for royalty. We were made to be princes and princesses. And in childlike understanding, perhaps we express this inclination best when we resonate with stories, tales, movies that suggest that all of us can have a "fairy-tale" life. In fact, it isn't a fairy tale at all.

I think little girls express this through their pretend, while little boys express this through their struggle with what looks to us like independence (but is really more of a spiritual "muscle-flexing" like a prince ought to occasionally try out). Adults express it in similar ways, but it seems much further off-- probably because so much of our view of ourselves and our world has been shaped by fallenness that we can't see past it easily.

The Pevensies weren't out of place as the kings and queens of Narnia; they were right where they were intended to be.
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Wildlife Watch, 1/9-1/15/08

Well, the deer have mostly slowed down in their movement; I still see them every now and then. (Lou has a knack for noticing them while we're meeting together!)
On the other hand, the fox (or foxes-- both, incidentally, are grammatically correct) have been moving a lot! I've seen a red fox and a grey fox in the past several days.
UPDATE: Wouldn't you know, the same day I put this up, I see three of the does wandering about? They were on one side of the church when I came back this afternoon, and came out on the other side later.
And then, of course, there is the wildlife experience that is the skunk hanging out under the sanctuary...
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Ordination trials

Most of you may know, I was examined by the Covenant Presbytery credentials committee today, as one of the final steps toward completing ordination. I was approved by the committee, and will be recommended by them for ordination.
Thank you for your prayers and support through this process. The final two steps are the oral exam before the entire Presbytery (on February 5), and the ordination service (date TBA). I look forward to finishing out this process, as it allows me to serve Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church as Pastor.
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Who's in charge here?

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.
~II Corintians 4:5

Yesterday at lunch, Jack asked me, "Daddy-- are you in charge of part of the church?"
What a profound question! I'm thrilled that Jack is asking questions like this, and thinking about these things. I wonder how many people have actually thought about this question...
Here's how the rest of the dialogue went (roughly!):
Me: "Jack, daddy's job is to be the Pastor at the church, which is not about being in charge, it's about serving them."
Jack: "What does 'serving them' mean?"
Me: "It means that I help them when they need help, I encourage them if they are sad, and I teach them about Jesus and how He is what they need."
Jack: "Sometimes it seems like you're in charge..."
Me: "Well, sometimes people act like they want me to be in charge; but when they act like that, what they really want is for me to teach them how Jesus is in charge."
Jack: "That's good."
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Working on a book

If you've ever read my other blog, Placement Reflections, you may know that I started it as a repository for data, insights, and interaction with the research that I started in 2004 on pastoral placement. I initially did that research for personal reasons (e.g., I wanted to know how to place well!) but quickly became burdened for anyone who is going through a pastoral transition. As I've continued to study this subject, I'm convinced that I have developed some helpful nuts-and-bolts ideas about how to do pastoral transition well, from both the pastor's side and the church's.
At some point, I wondered if there might be a book-length project in this material, or even more than one.
I first posted about this idea in July 2006-- so it is something that has been percolating for a while. Since then, I've gone through different stages of prepping for that-- including copying all of my posts into a very useful writing application (and discovering that I had more than enough material already for a book-length project-- and also realizing that about half of the book had barely been discussed); drafting a book proposal; getting great feedback from a trusted friend and fellow writer that I should divide the material into two books; writing a grant (that was rejected) for additional research for my book; actually losing the final draft of my book proposal; and putting all of it (including the Placement Reflections blog) on indefinite hold as I transitioned into pastoral ministry.
Now, the time is right for me to pick it up again over the coming months. I think there are several reasons why the timing is good:
  • For starters, I've actually done the transition now, and I'm finishing up my examinations for ordination; Lord willing, I'll be ordained by mid-March. Since I first began to discuss doing a book, this has been the biggest hang-up for those who I've interacted with, and while I still believe that the research I've done could stand on its own in this regard, the added (and possibly fundamental) credibility of having actually done it means a lot.
  • Next, approaching the completion (hopefully!) of ordination means that a major item that has been on my plate is finished. I'm settling into ministry well, and the other consulting and side work I'm doing is also reaching a manageable pace. So I have the capacity, I think, to re-focus on this project. Worst case, I'll start up and then slow down again, but we'll see.
  • I'm eager to publish this material-- mainly because I really want to see men (and women) helped with their transition into ministry. Like I said above, I have a burdened heart for this.
  • Finally, my friend Craig is setting his sights on finishing his (latest) book up this year, too-- and I think it would be cool to go through that together. Maybe we'll covenant to pray for one another in that, or at least be good support; Craig has been a great encourager of my writing in general.
Since Placement Reflections has been a great tool for prepping the book up to now, I fully intend to continue using it that way. I'll develop new ideas there on different levels over the coming months. 
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Wildlife Watch, 1/4/08

As I walked up the sidewalk this morning, I saw a doe just inside the woods. If you didn't know to look over there, and if the leaves hadn't mostly dropped, AND if you didn't know what to look for, you would have missed her. I felt pleased that I didn't.

Then not long after I arrived two does crossed the field behind the church. Lots of deer activity today!
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More hands than I could ever shake...

"I reach into my pocket just so I can make some change, and I find more hands than I could ever shake..."

~John Gorka, "Campaign Trail"


The Iowa Caucus is today-- which is a big deal, and it's not. It's a big deal because it signals the beginning of the Presidential Primary elections-- where the various parties select which nominee will represent the party in the general election. It's not a big deal (or at least, not the big deal that the media makes it out to be) because the Iowa Caucus is just one state, and historically the winner of the Iowa Caucus has won the party nomination less than 50% of the time.

Of course, it does mark the beginning of the official election year-- which is a big deal in itself, on a larger scale than just one state. There are some twists in this year's election: those who seemed early on to be sure-things are now showing that they are anything but, while otherwise low-level contenders have emerged in prominence; former party loyalties are being tested in both parties; and this also seems to be the year of the "anyone but" election.

By that I mean even candidates are suggesting that others should not get the nomination at any cost. Dennis Kucinich announced something on the order of, "if you don't vote for me, then vote for Barack Obama" (suggesting that Hilary Clinton or John Edwards are not worthy of the nomination). Evangelicals seem to be against certain candidates more than they are for any one in particular. The endorsements seem to be more "vote against" than "vote for" statements.

To me, this signals a troubling time. Christians in particular ought to be more about asserting what we do believe, what we are for, and what we will support; we ought NOT stand so firmly about what we are against.

Historically, Christians have identified themselves by a credo, a creed. The word credo means, "I believe" and it always has a consequent-- a statement that follows asserting what the belief is. "I believe in God, the Father Almighty..." When we move away from this form and begin to argue what we don't believe, we often divide unnecessarily. In my brief studies of church history, I have seen how this is the case.

There are times when we must divide. Certainly, there have been ecclesiastical divisions that were necessary and important, even vital to the health of the church. Likewise, there are political perspectives that prevent the wholesale unity of all voters (though there have been times when this has at least not appeared to be so: Ronald Reagan was elected by landslide victories in both elections, with 49 states voting for him in 1984).

When a Christian identifies themselves to me more by what they don't believe than what they do, I wonder whether they really understand the Gospel; it is, after all, fundamentally about reconciliation and bridging division. My experience has taught me that, almost universally, Christians who are more about being against something will not have a pattern of healthy relationships with other Christians.

I wonder if a similar standard could apply to political candidates? As we enter into the 2008 election season, who is asserting firmly what they DO stand for? Who is spending more time telling you what (or who) they disagree with? I suggest to you that the candidates that spend their time, energy, and campaign dollars talking about what they won't do (or about how other candidates will be trouble) are not leaders who offer hope of a healthy presidency.
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Haiku #7 (Christmastide Haiku)

Son of God and son
of man, living for us and
our unrighteousness.
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Sermon Texts, January 2008

Here is a list of the sermon texts for January, 2008:

1/6-- Luke 2:39-52
1/13-- Luke 3:1-22
1/20-- Luke 3:23-38
1/27-- Luke 4:1-13
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