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God The Saints' Rock - sermon part 1

By John Owen

      "From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I." -- Ps. lxi. 2. [373]

      There are two things in the words:-- First, The state wherein the psalmist was. Secondly, The course that he steered in that state.

      His estate is doubly expressed:-- 1. From the place where he was, -- "From the end of the earth;" and, 2. From the condition he was in, -- "His heart was overwhelmed."

      And in the course he steered there are two things also:-- 1. The manner of it, -- "He cried unto the Lord." 2. The matter of that cry, -- "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I."

      First. There is the state wherein he was. And, --

      1. The first description of it (for both parts are metaphorical) is from the place where he was, -- "The end of the earth." Now, this may be taken two ways:-- either naturally, and then it is an allusion to men that are far distant and remote from help, relief, and comfort; or, as I may say, ecclesiastically, with reference to the temple of God, which was "in medio terrÊ," -- "in the midst and heart of the land," where God manifested and gave tokens of his gracious presence and favour: as if he had said, "I am at the end of the earth; far from any tokens, pledges, or manifestations of the love and favour of God, as well as from outward help and assistance."

      2. The second description of his state is, that "his heart was overwhelmed." Wherein we have two things:--

      (1.) A confluence of calamities and distresses. (2.) The effect they had upon him; -- his heart was overwhelmed, and fainted under them. As long as the heart will hold up, they may be borne, -- "The spirit of a man will bear his infirmity;" but when "the spirit is wounded," and the heart faints, a confluence of calamities greatly oppresses.

      What is meant by "overwhelmed," himself declares in another place, Ps. cii. The title of the psalm is, "A prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed." And he describes that condition in the psalm itself, verses 3, 4, etc., "My days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth. My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin. I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert. I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house-top. Mine enemies reproach me all the day; and they that are mad against me are sworn against me. For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping, because of thine indignation and thy wrath: for thou hast lifted me up, and cast me down." To be overwhelmed, is to be under a confluence of all manner of distressing calamities. Ps. cxlii. 3, 4, he describes again what it is to be overwhelmed: "When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul." So that to have a confluence of manifold distresses, with an eye to the indignation of God as the spring of those distresses, until the spirit sink and faint under it, is to have the heart overwhelmed. This is his state and condition.

      Secondly. The course he takes in this state, as we have already observed, is also doubly expressed:--

      1. In the manner of it. "I cried," saith he, "unto thee." The word is frequently used in this case in Scripture; and it is naturally expressive of the principal actings of faith in a distressed condition.

      There are four things that faith will do in a condition of distress in believers; and they are all of them comprised in this expression, "I cried:" --

      (1.) It will make the heart sensible of the affliction. God abhors the proud and the stubborn, that think by their own spirits to bear up under their pressures. Isa. xlvi. 12, "Hearken unto me, ye stout-hearted, that are far from righteousness." Persons that think to bear themselves up, when God dealeth with them, by their stout heart, are such whom, of all others, God most despises and abhors: they are "far from righteousness." Now, crying doth include a sense of evils and pressures the soul is exercised withal, and that we do not despise God when we are chastened, as well as that we do not utterly faint, but cry unto the Lord.

      (2.) The next act of faith is a holy complaint unto God in such a state and condition. So the psalmist tells us, Ps. cii., "A prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed, and poureth out his complaint before the Lord." He often mentions "his complaint, coming with his complaint unto the Lord." And God takes nothing more kindly than when we come to him with our complaints; not repining at them, but spreading them before the Lord, as from whom alone we expect relief: for it declares we believe God concerns himself in our state and condition. There is no man so foolish, whatsoever he suffers, as to go unto them with his complaints whom he supposes are not concerned in him, nor have any compassion for him. It is a professing unto God that we believe he is concerned in our condition, when we cry unto him, and pour out before him our complaints.

      (3.) There is in it an endeavour to approach unto God; as you do when you cry after one whom you see at a distance, and are afraid he will go farther from you. It is the great work of faith to cry out after God at a distance, when you are afraid lest at the next turn he should be quite out of sight. Crying to the Lord, supposes him to be withdrawing or departing.

      (4.) There is earnestness in it. It is expressive of the greatest earnestness of spirit we can use, when we cry out in any case.

      Thus he behaves himself during the condition described:-- He had a sense of his distress; he makes his complaint unto the Lord; he cries out after him, for fear he should withdraw himself, and that with earnestness, that God might come in to his help.

      2. The matter of it is, -- that God would "lead him to the rock;" that is, that God would give him an access unto himself by Jesus Christ, in whom God is our rock and our refuge in all our distresses; that he would but open a way through all his dark and overwhelming entanglements, that he might come unto himself, there to issue the troubles and perplexities that he was exercised withal.

      That which I would speak to you, from the words thus opened, is this:--

      Observation. In the most overwhelming, calamitous distresses that may befall a believing soul, faith still eyes a reserve in God, and delights to break through all to come unto him; though, at the same time, it looks upon God as the author of those calamities.

      I have told you before, in the opening of the words, what I intend by these overwhelming distresses. They are of two sorts; inward and outward:--

      First. Inward, in perplexities upon the soul and conscience about sin; when the soul is in darkness, and hath no apprehension of any ground upon which it may have acceptance with God; when it is pressed with the guilt of sin, and abides in darkness upon that account, and hath no light.

      Secondly. Outward; and these are of two sorts:--

      1. Private; in afflictions, losses, sickness, pains, poverty, either as to ourselves or those who are near unto us, and wherein we are concerned. These may sometimes have such an edge put upon them as to prove overwhelming.

      2. Public, in reference unto the church of God; when that is in great distress, when there is no prospect of relief, no beam of light; when the summer is past, and the harvest ended, -- expectations come to an issue, and no relief ensues. This is an overwhelming distress to them whose hearts are in the ways of God, and have a concern in his glory, -- when Zion is in the dust, and the bones of the children of Zion lie scattered like wood upon the face of the earth.

      These are the heads of overwhelming distresses. And I say, faith looks upon them as proceeding from God. Is the soul in distress upon the account of sin? They are God's rebukes, God's arrows; -- it is God that hath caused this darkness. Is it troubled or pressed upon the account of afflictions or dangers? "Affliction," saith faith, "doth not spring out of the earth, or troubles from the ground; -- these things are from God." Is it with respect unto the church of God? "Who gave Jacob for a spoil, and Israel to the robbers?" Is it not the Lord, he against whom we have sinned? It is, therefore, his wrath and indignation in all these things. Yet, notwithstanding this, faith will look through all, and make a reserve in God himself.

      I shall, -- I. Give some instances of this. II. Show the grounds of it. III. Come to that which I chiefly intend; namely, to discover what it is in God that in such an overwhelming condition faith can see and fix upon to give it support and relief. IV. Show how this differs from that general reserve which the nature of man is apt to take in his thoughts of God in distress.

      I. I am to give some instances. And we have a very remarkable instance of this in Jonah, who tells us, chap. ii. 2, that he was in "the belly of hell." Hell in Scripture, when it is applied to the things of this world, doth intend the depth of temporal evils; as in Ps. xviii. 4, "The sorrows of hell compassed me," saith David, speaking of the time of his affliction and persecution under Saul. And "the belly of hell" must needs be the darkness and confusion of all those calamitous distresses. Where did Jonah (viewing himself in this condition) look for the cause from whence it did proceed? He tells us, verse 3, "For thou hast cast me into the deep." He knew the occasion of it was his own sinful forwardness; the instrumental cause, -- the mariners, upon his own persuasion; but he refers it all to the principal cause, God himself: "Thou hast cast me into the deep." And how did this affect him? Verse 7, "My soul fainted within me." What relief then had he? Verses 5, 6, "The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottom of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever." No manner of relief, support, or succour to be expected! What did he do in this case? He tells presently. "My prayer came in unto thee," saith he, looking upon God as him who had cast him into this condition; his eye was to him. David gives us several instances of it in himself. Once, I acknowledge, he was mistaken in his course. He tells us so. Ps. lv. 3-5, he had described the overwhelming condition wherein he was. And what course doth he take? Verse 6, "Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest; I would wander far off, and be in the wilderness" "O that I was gone from the midst of all these perplexities, -- that I was rid of those that are ready to overwhelm me!" But this was not a right course. I might give innumerable instances of the contrary. Ps. xxxi. 9, 10, etc., is a description of as sad a condition as any man can fall into, and which is accompanied with a great sense of God's displeasure, and of his own sin. Verse 10, "My strength faileth because of mine iniquity, and my bones are consumed." What course doth he then take? Verse 14, "But I trusted in thee, O Lord; I said, Thou art my God." "When my strength failed because of mine iniquities, and my bones were consumed; when there was nothing but distress round about me, and that from God, yet then I trusted in thee, and said, Thou art my God.' " And this is what God himself invites us unto. Isa. xl. 27, there is a complaint made by Jacob, "My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God." We have but two things wherein we are concerned in this world, as we are professors of the gospel; and they are, -- our way, and our judgment. Our "way;" that is, the course of obedience and profession which, according to the truth, we are engaged in; as believing in Christ is called a "way." "My way of faith, my way of worship, my way of obedience, is hid from the Lord; God takes no notice of it;" which is as much as to say, "My all in the things of God is at a loss: God takes no notice of my way." Should that be our condition, really we should be of all men most miserable. But there is also our "judgment;" that is, the judgment that is to be passed upon our cause and way, which David doth so often pray about when he begs that God would "judge him in his righteousness." Now saith the church here, "God takes no notice of it, but hath put off the cause to the world. My judgment is passed over, determined for me no more; but he lets me suffer under the judgment of the world." And truly, when our way and judgment is passed over, -- profession and obedience as it were hid from God, -- God takes no notice of them. And when he puts off the judgment and determination of our cause, what have we more in the world? What doth God now propose to them for their relief? what promises, what encouragements, will he remind them of? Nothing but himself. Verse 28, "Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding." God calls them to consider him in his own nature and being, with those glorious acts suited thereunto. He calls our faith to look for rest in himself alone. It is impossible thy way and thy judgment should thus pass over from him, because he is "the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator."

      II. I come now to the grounds of it, -- whence it is that faith doth this. And that is upon a twofold account:-- 1. Because it knows how to distinguish between the nature of the covenant and the external administration of it. 2. Because it is natural to faith so to do; and that upon a double account, as we shall see presently:--

      1. Faith doth this, because it is able to distinguish between the covenant itself, which is firm, stable, invariable; and the administration of the covenant, which is various and changeable, -- I mean the outward administration of it. And this God teaches us, Ps. lxxxix. 30-34, "If his children" the children of Jesus Christ -- "forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; if they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my loving-kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips." The covenant of God shall stand firm and unalterable, then, when the rod and the stripes of men are upon our backs. In the midst of all God's visiting for iniquity, whether by internal rebukes or outward chastisements, yet faith sees the covenant stable; and so makes unto God upon that account. David, when he comes to die, gives it as the sum of all his observation, that the covenant was immutable, but the outward administration various, 2 Sam. xxiii. 5, "Although my house be not so with God, yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure." "However God doth deal with my house, whatever misery is brought upon us, yet the covenant itself is everlasting; ordered in all things, and sure.' " Whatever misery and distress may fall upon a believing soul (and I pray God help me to believe it, as well as to say it), -- whatever darkness or temptation he may be exercised withal upon the account of sin -- whatever pressure, in afflictions, persecutions, dangers, may befall him -- they all belong unto God's covenant dispensation in dealing with him. For God being his God in covenant, he acts according to the covenant in all things. Hence saith Hezekiah, Isa. xxxviii. 16, "O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit." What are these things? Why, saith he, "I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will he break all my bones; from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me. What shall I say? he hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it; I shall go softly all my years in the bitterness of my soul." One would think the next words would be, "By these things men die." No; but, "By these things believers live, and in all these things is the life of my soul' " because they are all administered from the invariable covenant for the good of the souls of them who are exercised with them. Now, as God is pleased to declare himself, so is the soul to think of God in these dispensations of the covenant. Doth God hide his face, and leave the soul to darkness? -- in darkness it must be. Job xxxiv. 29, "When he giveth quietness, who then can make trouble? and when he hideth his face, who then can behold him?" Whether it be done against a nation, or against a man only, -- be it against one person, or the whole church of God, -- if he hides his face, and causeth darkness, none can behold him. When God chastens us, we cannot but look upon him as angry; when he gives us up into the hands of men, hard masters, we cannot but look upon it as a token of his displeasure. When God doth thus in his outward dispensation of the covenant, so that all things are dark, and show nothing but displeasure; and we are to look upon him as a God that hideth himself, and is displeased with us, and exercising anger towards us; -- in such a day what shall the soul then do? Why, under all these outward tokens of God's displeasure, faith will, though but weak and faint, work through unto God himself, as invariable in his covenant; and there have a reserve in him beyond them all. Ps. xcvii. 2, "Clouds and darkness are round about him; but righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne." "I confess I have clouds and darkness round about me; but if I could but break through these clouds and darkness, that are the consequents of God's hiding his face, and come to his throne, there is righteousness and judgment, -- that righteousness and judgment wherein he hath betrothed me unto himself in covenant," Hos. ii. 19. "Could I get through this darkness of mind, this pressure upon my spirit, this sense of guilt, and come unto his throne; there I should find him faithful and stable in his promises, and unalterable in his love." Now, suppose a person to have all these things upon him at once, -- that God hath left him to a great sense of sin (for our troubles about sin are not according to the greatness of our sin, but to the sense God will let in upon us; and they are not to be reckoned the greatest sinners who are most troubled for their sin), and his troubles are very great; and at the same time the Lord, in his providential dispensation, is pleased to exercise him in sharp afflictions; and if at the same time his interest and concernment in the people of God is likewise in darkness and distress, that there is no relief in that neither, -- to such a one there are clouds and darkness round about God. What then will faith do, in such a case? Why, true faith will secretly work through all to the throne of God, where there is righteousness, and judgment, and acceptance with him. So it is said, Isa. viii. 17, "I will wait upon the Lord, that hideth his face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for him." The face of God is his love in Christ, and the shining of his countenance in the promises of the covenant; for the way whereby God communicates his love unto our hearts, is by his promises. Now, when the soul is sensible of no communication of love, nor promise of it, then God is said to hide his face. What will faith do in such a case? -- betake itself unto any thing else for relief? No; saith he, "I will wait upon God, that hideth his face." As a traveller, when the sky is filled with clouds and darkness, tempests and storms, that are ready to break upon him everywhere, yet remembers that these are but interpositions, and the sun is where it was; and if he can but shelter himself till the storm be over, the sun will shine out again, and its beams refresh him: so is it with the soul in this case; it remembers God is still where he was. "Though there are clouds within, and distresses without, -- sorrow, and anguish, and fears round about us, and the enemy enters into the very soul; yet the sun is where it was still, -- God will hide us where we may abide till this indignation be overpast, and the light of his countenance will yet shine upon me again." Faith considers God in the midst of all his various administrations; and so finds a way for relief.

      2. Faith will naturally thus act, as it is the principle of the new nature in us, that came from God, and will tend unto him, whatever difficulties lie in the way.

      Evangelical faith will have a secret double tendency to God:--

      (1.) Upon that necessary respect which it indispensably and uncontrollably hath to Jesus Christ; for it being the purchase of Christ, and wrought in us by his Spirit, and being the product and travail of the soul of Christ, it hath a natural tendency unto him, 1 Pet. i. 21, "Who by him do believe in God," -- by Christ as mediator, as our surety, undertaking for us; -- so that let what will overwhelm the soul, where there is but the least faith, it will have relief in this, that Christ was substituted in its room against all real indignation and wrath from God. The father of the faithful was once reduced to great distress, -- when he had lifted up his knife to the throat of his only son: but when destruction lies so near at the door, a voice called to him from heaven, and stopped him; and he looked behind him, and saw a ram caught for a sacrifice to God. When many a poor soul hath the knife at the throat of all his consolations, ready to die away, he hears a voice behind him, that makes him look and see Christ provided for him, as a substituted sacrifice in his room.

      (2.) The new creature is the child of God, whereof faith is the principle. It is begotten of God, of his own will; and so, against all interpositions and difficulties whatsoever, is tending to him.

      III. I now proceed to show what it is that, in such an overwhelming condition as I have described, faith regards in God to give it a support and relief, that it be not utterly swallowed up and overwhelmed. And, --

      1. The first thing faith considers, in such a condition, is, the nature of God himself and his excellencies. This is that which God, in the first place, proposes for our relief, Hos. xi. 9, "I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim." What reason doth he give to assure us that he will not? "For," saith he, "I am God, and not man; the Holy One in the midst of thee." He proposes his own nature to our faith, to confirm us that, whatever our expectations be, he will not execute the fierceness of his wrath; and he reproaches them who put their trust in any thing that is not God by nature. So Deut. xxxii. 21, "They have provoked me with that which is not God." And he curseth him "that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm," Jer. xvii. 5. But he proposes himself for our trust, -- one of infinite goodness, grace, bounty, and patience.

      Now, there are two ways whereby God proposes his nature, and the consideration of it, for the relief of faith in overwhelming distresses:--

      (1.) By his name. The name of God is God himself, Ps. ix. 10, "They that know thy name will put their trust in thee;" that is, "They that know thee." Whatsoever the word itself signifies, yet it is the nature of God that is declared by his name. And you know how he doth invite and encourage us to trust in the name of God: "The name of God is a strong tower; the righteous runneth into it, and is safe," Prov. xviii. 10. Isa. l. 10," Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God." The name of the Lord, is what he declares himself to be, "The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin," Exod. xxxiv. 6, 7. Here he reveals and declares his name. God proposes his name, and the declaration of it, against the working of unbelief; which apprehends that he is severe, wrathful, -- that he watcheth for our halting, treasures up every failing and sin to be avenged of it, and that he will do it in fury. No: saith God, "Fury is not in me," Isa. xxvii. 4. The Lord is good and gracious, as appears by his name, especially as revealed in Christ; so that faith will find secret encouragement in it in all distresses.

      By the way, hence you may observe, that God in former days, whilst revelation was under a progress, and he revealed himself by little and little, did still give out his name according as the state and condition of his church and people required; because he called them to trust in his name. How did he reveal himself unto Abraham? He tells you, Exod. vi. 3, "I revealed myself unto Abraham by the name of God Almighty." So, Gen. xvii. 1, he says to him, "I am the Almighty God." And he gives an explication of that name, chap. xv. 1, "I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward." Abraham was in a state and condition wherein he wanted protection in the world; for he was a stranger, and wandered up and down among strange nations, that were stronger than he, and such as he might fear destruction from every day. "Fear not," saith God, "for I am God Almighty; I am thy shield.' " And in the faith of this did Abraham travel among the nations. And at that time he had no child. What end, then, should he have of all his labour and travel? Why, saith God, "I am thy reward." And Gen. xiv., where there is a discourse about the nations of the world, who began to fall into idolatry, Melchizedek is called "The priest of the most high God." God revealed himself to be a "high God," to cast contempt upon their dunghill gods. And when Abraham came to speak with the king of Sodom, he says," I have sworn by the most high God." So when God came to bring the people out of the land of Egypt, he revealed himself unto them by his name Jehovah. "I did not reveal myself so before," saith God; "but now I reveal myself so, because I am come to give subsistence unto my promise." Thus God dealt with them, when he came to maintain his church, by gradual revelations. But now God reveals himself by his whole name; and we may take what suits our distress, especially that which is comprehensive of all the rest, -- "The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."

      (2.) God doth this by comparing himself to such creatures as act out of natural kindness: "Can a woman forget her sucking child? Yet will I not forget."

      Now, there are three reasons why it is necessary that faith, in an overwhelming condition, should have regard to the nature of God, and the essential properties of his nature, for its relief:-- [1.] Because of the circumstances of our distresses; [2.] Because of the nature of them; and, [3.] Because of the nature of faith:--

      [1.] Because of the circumstances of our distress. There are three or four circumstances that may befall us in our distress, that faith itself can get no relief against them, but from the essential properties of the nature of God:--

      1st. The first is, place. Believers may be brought into distress in all places of the world; -- in a lions' den, with Daniel, -- in a dungeon with Jeremiah; they may be banished to the ends of the earth, as John to Patmos; or they may be driven into the wilderness, as the woman by the fury of the dragon. The whole church may be cast into places where no eye can see them, no hand relieve them, -- where none knows whether they are among the living or the dead. Now, what can give relief against this circumstance of distress which may befall the people of God? Nothing but what Jeremiah tells us, Jer. xxiii. 23, "Am I a God at hand, and not a God afar off, to the ends of the earth?" Ps. cxxxix. 7, " Whither shall I flee from thy presence?' to the utmost ends of the earth?" It is all in vain: the essential omnipresence of God can alone relieve the souls of believers against this great circumstance of various places, whither they may be driven to suffer distresses and be overwhelmed with them. If the world could cast us out where God is not, and hath nothing to do, how would it triumph! It was a part of their bondage and great difficulty of old, that the solemn worship of God was confined to one certain country and place; so that when the enemies of the church could cast them out from thence, they did, as it were, say unto them, "Go, serve other gods." God hath taken off that bondage; all the world cannot throw us out of a place where we cannot worship God. Wherever there is a holy people, there is a holy land, and we can be driven to no place but God is there; and if we should be compelled to leave our land, we have no ground to fear we shall leave our God behind us. God's essential omnipresence is a great relief against this circumstance of distress, especially to souls that are cast out where no eye can pity them. Should they be cast into dungeons, as Jeremiah was, yet they can say, "God is here."

      2dly. It is so likewise with respect to time. The sufferings of the Church of God are not tied up to one age or generation. "We can see some little comfort and relief that may befall us in our own days; but what shall become of our posterity of future ages?" Why, God's immutability is the same throughout all generations; his "loving-kindness fails not," as the psalmist saith, -- which is the only relief against this distress. Alas! if a man should take a prospect of the interest of Christ at this day in the world, and consider the coming on of wickedness like a flood in all parts of the earth, he would be ready to think, "What will God do for his great name? what will become of the gospel of Christ in another age?" But God is the same through all times and ages.

      3dly. There is relief to be found in God, and only in himself, in the loss of all, -- when nothing remains. Should a man lose his lands, if his house remains he hath something to relieve him; he knows where to repose his head under his cares. But when all is gone, what can relieve him? Nothing but God and his all-sufficiency. This was Habakkuk's comfort if all should fail him. "Yet," saith he, "I will rejoice in the Lord, and joy in the God of my salvation."

      4thly. The last circumstance of distress is death. The way and manner whereby it may approach us, and how soon this will be, we know not. When all this state and frame of things shall vanish, and we prove to have an utter unconcernment in things below; when the curtain shall be turned aside, and we shall look into another world; the soul's relief lies in God's immutability, -- that we shall find him the same to us in death as he was in life, and much more.

      [373] This sermon was preached November 11, 1670.

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See Also:
   God The Saints' Rock - sermon part 1
   God The Saints' Rock - sermon part 2


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