Married to God

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We can liken our relationship with God to a marriage. There are many passages in scripture that do this. God’s covenant with us is much the same as a marriage covenant or contract. When we reflect on this similarity, we can imagine the very best of what a marriage can be as reflecting a good relationship with God.

However, as in marriage, people sometimes commit adultery against God. We go off to other gods to have our needs met. We seek fulfilment outside of the marriage. Indeed, we can think of all of our sin (not only sexual sin) as adultery in our marriage to God. We read about this in Jeremiah 3:6-10:

During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD.

Here, both Israel and Judah sought fulfilment from other Gods, which the Lord describes as adultery. And although Judah did return God, it was not whole-hearted, but only in pretence – a charade. God knows the inner working of our hearts. A sham marriage is no marriage at all.

The result of this adultery and half-hearted fakery is that God divorces her. It is hard to imagine a worse fate than to be divorced by God!

But God’s capacity forgive and reach out is infinite. God says in Jeremiah 3:11-14a:

The LORD said to me, “… Go, proclaim this message toward the north: “ ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ ” declares the LORD. “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you…”

We read a similar story in Hosea, in which God instructs Hosea to marry an adulterous and promiscuous wife. Hosea obeys and, of course, it goes badly. But then God instructs Hosea to reconcile with his wife:

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.” (Hosea 3:1-3)

As we continue our journey through Lent, nurturing on our relationship with God and repenting of our sin, let us renew our marriage vows with God and to live as a faithful, monogamous and whole-hearted spouse.

Featured image from: https://iglesiatijuana.org/web/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Marriage.jpg

A long story of God’s salvation

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Our Old Testament readings over Lent provide us with highlighted of the long story of God’s salvation of humanity. I thought that today we should look at all of these readings – the five Old Testament Sunday Lent readings, and today’s New Testament reading.

I summarise the development of God’s work for salvation as follows:

  1. God’s unconditional covenant with humanity
    • Genesis 9 (God’s rainbow covenant)
    • ‘Covenant’ is mentioned seven times
    • God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood
    • The rainbow reminds God of this covenant God has made with us
    • This covenant is entirely God’s doing and initiative, and unconditional for all humanity
  2. God’s everlasting covenant, plus circumcision
    • Genesis 17 (God’s covenant of circumcision)
    • ‘Covenant’ is mentioned 10 times
    • In three of these God says the covenant is everlasting
    • However, now the covenant has conditions:
    • Abraham must walk before God faithfully and blamelessly (v1), and
    • Males must be circumcised.
    • Males who are not circumcised fall outside God’s covenant (v14)
  3. God’s external law, which humanity must obey
    • Exodus 20 (God’s 10 commandments)
    • God now sets external laws by which we must abide
    • Now the responsibility for maintaining a right relationship with God is entirely humanity’s
    • Paul’s problem with this approach is that we inevitably break the law and thus fall out of favour with God
    • The solution of the Law alienates us from God
  4. Punishment for sin, but grace for salvation
    • Numbers 21 (God’s bronze snake)
    • But now we see a shift in God’s engagement with humanity
    • Still, law is important, and those who sin were bitten by poisonous snakes
    • But God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake which is lifted up
    • Those who look to this snake are saved/healed
    • This is a sign of grace – we look to God and God saves
    • The is a foreshadowing of the cross – we look up to Jesus on the cross, who saves
  5. God’s internal law; God’s choice to forgive
    • Jeremiah 31 (God’s law written on our hearts)
    • God says he is now setting out a new law that replaces the old – we see God shifting
    • This new law is written in our hearts – not on tablets or paper
    • And God chooses to forgive, out of God’s own initiative (v34b)
  6. Christ wins once-for-all salvation through faith
    • Romans 2-4 (God’s salvation by grace through faith)
    • Now, after Christ, salvation is by grace – it is won by Christ for us
    • We can add nothing to the salvation he has made possible
    • God chooses to forgive us, and indeed has already forgiven us and our descendants already – this is grace (a free gift)
    • We receive this grace through faith – we simply open our hearts and receive what is already available to us
    • We don’t earn our salvation – Christ has already done that – we merely receive it

There are three summary messages from today’s teaching:

  1. God has always been working for our salvation, since the creation – and continues to do so today
  2. God’s ways of working with humanity shift over time – God is not a stone – God is a person who adjusts their style of interacting with us
  3. Christ has fully accomplished our salvation – we can and need add nothing to it – we are invited merely to receive it
Featured image from https://davidjeremiah.blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/an-assurance-of-salvation-verse-to-know-by-heart.jpg

The heart

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Jesus tells us that God views the source of our behaviour in our hearts. As a result, God is more interested in what is in our hearts than how we behave. Our motivations, our inner thoughts, our orientation towards God – all of which come forth in our speech and behaviour – is where God’s attention is. We are urged to attend to our inner lives and orientate ourselves towards God.

Featured image from http://www.mydr.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/heartbeat_750.jpeg

That is why I have come

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That is why I have come!”

These are the words of Jesus for us today. In Mark 1:29-39, we read of Jesus healing people and casting out demons. He then withdraws to pray and his disciples follow him, annoyed, saying, “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus responds, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” Jesus has a clear sense of calling, of why he is here in this world. It emerges out of his time of prayer with his father. He has come to heal, to restore, to save and to preach. (You may recall last week’s sermon, Acts of love, in which I showed that while Jesus is involved in both knowledge or teaching and healing or acts of love, it is the latter that enjoys more attention.)

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul writes, “When I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Paul does not regard preaching as something he can choose to do or not do. He feels that he was made to preach, and thus has to preach. And so he says, “I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.” God called him to preach, and preach he must.

I resonate with this verse. After many years of feeling called into ministry, and running away as fast and as far as I could, I finally conceded and preached my first sermon in August 2005 (you can read that sermon, based on Romans 12:1, here). Terrified as I was, I knew as I stood, clinging to the lectern, that this is what God had called me for and that I had to continue preaching. I felt compelled to preach! There was a period of a few years when lay ministers were barred from preaching. I remember feeling like a bear with a headache or a woman who was 11-months pregnant. I was irritable, distressed, uncomfortable, in pain, because I felt I was unable to give birth to the sermons growing in me. As Paul wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

The clear sense of calling or purpose expressed by Jesus and Paul, and indeed most of the characters in the Bible (think of Isaiah’s “Here am I. Send me!” in Isaiah 6:8), is God’s gift to every Christian. It not just some special few who have a calling, a sense of why they are here, as sense of being compelled to do something for God. This is a gift God gives to every believer. 1 Corinthians 12:7 & 27 tells us that “to each one [that is, to every single one] the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” and that “each one of you [that is, every single believer] is a part of” the body of Christ.

God has put you on earth for a purpose.

You are alive for a reason.

You have been sent to do particular work for God.

What is it that God is calling you for? What has God gifted you to do? What is that nagging voice at the back of you mind telling you? What do you know you should be doing for God, but are avoiding? What is it that deeply satisfies you? What is it that, when you do it, tells you that you are in the centre of God’s will for you?

That thing is what you are here for. That is what you are compelled to do. That is why you have come!

Featured image from https://byfaithonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/620x400_p40.jpg

My eyes have seen

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Today we celebrate the festival of the presentation of our Lord at the temple, in Luke 2:22-40. For Simeon, encountering the infant Christ was the pinnacle of his life, and so he says, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Seeing or encountering Christ is the high-point of our lives; everything else is a bonus, icing on the cake. Let us remember our first encounter with Christ, and put the rest of our life in perspective.

Featured image: “Simeon’s song of praise” by Arent de Gelder (1700-1710), from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aert_de_Gelder_-_Het_loflied_van_Simeon.jpg

Acts of love

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Our readings for today speak about the balance between knowledge and action – between what we know in our heads and what we do with our bodies. What we’ll see is that in the Gospels, Psalms and Paul’s letters, actions are more important than knowledge. It is not the knowledge is unimportant – no! Knowledge is important. But acts of love are even more important. The hallmark of a Christian is not so much what they know as what they do.

In our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:21-28) we read about Jesus first ministry. We read that Jesus went into the temple and was teaching. And people were amazed at the authority of his teaching. The people later conclude, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority!” Clearly, Jesus’ teaching, based on his knowledge, is important.

However, only 1 verse describes him teaching, and we don’t know what he actually taught. But there are 4 verses describing is actions. While he was teaching a demon possessed man came and challenged Jesus. Jesus cases out the evil spirit and the man is made well. This act of love, this work of love, gathers more attention than his teaching. And the people conclude, “He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”

While both knowledge and actions are present in this Gospel passage, actions are far more detailed and compelling.

If we then turn to Psalm 111, we find a similar pattern. Verses 7 and 10 speak about God’s precepts. A precept is a general guideline or principle; not a ‘law’, which is far more specific and prescriptive. v7 says that God’s precepts are trustworthy and v10 that all who follow the Lord’s precepts have good understanding; it is the beginning of wisdom. Clearly, knowledge of God’s precepts is important.

However, 7 of the 10 verses speak about God’s works: the words of the Lord (v1), his deeds (v3), his wonders (v4), he provides food (v5), she showed his works (v6), the words of his hands (v7) and he provided redemption for his people (v9). Wow! So much attention is given to the actions of God. And these actions are described as being great, delightful, glorious, majestic, righteous, gracious, compassionate, powerful, faithful, just, holy and awesome! These are acts of love, and Psalm 111 is drenched in them.

While both knowledge and action are present in this Psalm, actions are far more prolific and compelling.

And finally, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 8, in which Paul provides some rather complex teaching about eating food offered to idols. I do not want us to get too bogged down in the specifics of the teaching, but rather to focus on what Paul says here about knowledge and action. In the opening verses, Paul says, “We all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” This sentence is so direct and clear – knowledge makes us feel bigger and more important, while actions of love build up the community. And then he continues, “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” He cautions against over confidence in knowledge – that we may think we know a lot, but we may actually be wrong. And he continues again, “But whoever loves God is known by God”, though there is an alternate reading (in the footnote of the NIV), “But whoever loves truly knows.” Paul’s warning about knowledge is balanced with an emphasis on love. Acts of love are what are most important, says Paul.

In the rest of this passage Paul explains about eating food sacrificed to idols, and the crux of his argument is that acting on the basis of right knowledge rather than on loving consideration of the needs of others harms these other people. Indeed, Paul says that they are “destroyed by your knowledge” and that this is to “sin against them” and indeed to “sing against Christ” (vv11-12). And he concludes this passage saying that he would rather act against his own knowledge, to protect others from falling (v13).

In other words, what is most important is not for us to act on what we believe to be right, or even on what is actually right, but to act out of love for others, so as not to harm others. In summary, it is better to be kind than to be right.

All three passages today give us the same clear, strong and compelling message: Knowledge, while important, is not what is most important to God. What is most important to God, is that we act in love towards others.

What, then, will you do with this knowledge? How can you put into practice this precept, that loving actions towards others are more important than all the knowledge in the world?

Let me make one practical suggestion. Or rather, let me present this to you as a challenge and urge you to make a decision now to act on this. With the lockdown, churches have had to close their doors and we no longer see our sisters and brothers like we used to. This results in a fragmentation of the church community, and as a result, people may feel disconnected and alone, and their faith may wane.

I challenge you to identify two or three people who would normally have spoken to at church, but because you’ve not seen them for a while, you’ve not spoken with them. Give them a call or drop them a note. Reach out to them. Ask how they are doing. Ask if they need anything. Ask what you can do to support them. Show them the love of God. In so doing, we will work to build up our church community, the body of Christ.

Featured image from https://www.alovingcompany.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/iStock_000005355205Small3-e1362098423422.jpg

Resurrection life

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I am taking a funeral later today for a parishioner who died of Covid. I asked his wife if she would like to pick a Scripture reading that she or her husband liked, and she selected Acts 24:15. I was quite surprised! I’ve participated in many funerals over the years and can never recall this verse being used. But it is a very apt passage, as I hope you will see.

I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:14-16)

Paul was currently under house arrest due to charges laid against him by the Jewish leaders. This continues for a number of years under various Roman rulers, and eventually he is transferred to Rome, where he spends the rest of his life. So, in today’s passage, Paul is both defending himself and declaring his faith. He is giving a testimony of what he believes. And this has four elements:

  1. He is a follower of the Way, which is how people referred in those days to Christians. Christianity was known as ‘the Way’ and Christians as followers (of the Way).
  2. He believes in the First Testament scriptures (the Law and the Prophets). In this way, he regards the First Testament as part of a Christian bible.
  3. He hopes for the resurrection, as did some, but not all, Jewish people in that time.
  4. He strives to keep a clear conscience with God and people, that is, to be on good terms with everyone.

The centre of the passage, however, is the third point about the resurrection.

First, he says that he has hope there will be a resurrection. This hope implies that there is more to life than just this life. Some people then and today believe that this life is all there is, and when we die, that’s the end. Paul says instead that there is a life after this life, the resurrection life. And so, while this life will end, there will be continuation of life in the resurrection life. And this implies that what we do in this life has implications for the next life. Our pattern of living is shaped not only by a present morality, but also by a recognition that how we live now will shape how we live the next life.

Second, Paul says something unique here – that both the righteous and the wicked will be raised. This means we are raised for judgement. As Jesus says, to separate the sheep from the goats. And judgement determines our eternal future.

Therefore, Paul says, he strives always to keep a clear conscience before God and humanity. Because this life impacts the next life, what we do now impacts our life then, and therefore it is important that we maintain good relations with God and humanity.

How do we do that? Paul says two things. First, we are urged to follow the Way of Christ. To model ourselves on him, to learn from him, to shape our behaviour on him, to assimilate his values. Second, we are urged to believe the Scriptures. We may not always understand them, we may prefer some passages over others; but we do have to engage respectfully and thoughtfully with the Scriptures. It is all Spirit-breathed and useful for living out our faith. So, Paul emphasizes that both our beliefs and our behaviour are important for Christian living.

The Covid pandemic is confronting us with the fragility of life – how quickly it can be snuffed out, and how easily we can lose life, even if we are young. It reminds us how precious this present life is and how we need to use it fully to develop and live out our faith. Acts 24:14-16 encapsulates the heart of Paul’s faith. Let us listen to Paul and follow Christ’s Way.

Featured image from https://www.ministrymatters.com/preach/entry/8904/resurrection-and-suffering-saints

A life of love

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video. Or read the text summary below.

Today is surely a watershed moment for the world: 20 January 2021, the end of Donald Trump’s administration. Whether or not one is an American, this change of administration will surely impact the world in one way or another.

This is not a sermon about America or American politics, however. Rather it is a sermon about what defines a Christian. When we look at the American right and left, who are so profoundly divided at this time, and yet who both comprise large numbers of Christians who believe that their politics is aligned with their Christian faith, we must ask, What does it mean to be a Christian? How can Christians, who follow the same book of teachings, be so polarised when it comes to their beliefs, practices and policies?

Perhaps one of the reasons is the weight that different groups of Christians give to different parts of the Bible. While we (are exhorted to) believe that “all Scripture [that is, the whole of the Bible] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), if we base our Christian beliefs, practices and policies on the first Testament (the Old Testament) more than on the Gospels, or even on the rest of the second Testament more than on the Gospels, then something is wrong.

The Gospels present to us the very life, ministry and teaching of God the Son. These are not subsequent interpretations of Christ’s ministry, but Christ’s ministry itself. If we want to see God, we must look at his Son; and we get his Son in the Gospels. Jesus Christ’s life, as recorded in the Gospels, must be the template for Christian belief, practice and policy. And all the rest of the Bible must be interpreted through the Gospels.

Ironically, our reading today is not from the Gospels, but from Paul’s letter, where he writes about the central message we get from the Gospels: live a life of love.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)

The life of a Christian must be rooted in love. This passage is not about love for other Christians, but love for all humanity. Paul emphasises the love that God had for us before we were saved – the love that led to God’s forgiveness of us and of Christ’s offering of himself as a sacrifice to God – these are about God’s love for us before we were saved, and thus the example is for how we love the whole world.

Love is the foundation of Christian life. Indeed, these verses are part of a larger passage which opens as follows:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. (Ephesians 4:17-18)

In other words, Paul sees this ‘life of love’ as constituting a fundamental difference between Christian life and non-Christian life. Our love for others is what is supposed to define us as Christians and differentiate us from everyone else. Indeed, Christ himself gives us this great command:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)

This love for other people (and indeed for the whole of creation) is fundamental to what it means to be Christian. It is only after all this, that Paul then says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3) and then goes on to talk about morality. Morality is important, but the life of love is even more important. When we place morality above love, we are out of step with Christ, who consistently placed love above everything else. If you are placing morality above love, you must go back to the Gospels and see how Jesus lived, what he said and how he related to people.

What is most important and definitive in the life of Christ is the life of love, which is a love that is radical and inclusive. It is this kind of love that is supposed to inform our beliefs (how we understand God, ourselves and the world), our practices (how we life our life moment by moment) and our policies (or politics).

We pray for the people of America and their new president. We pray for a drawing closer together of the American people, a reduction in polarisation and anger, and a greater rooting of life in the Gospel message of love for one another. And we pray also for ourselves and our nation, which has its own challenges.

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Follow me

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Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to follow him. In John 1:43-51 Jesus calls Philip – “follow me”. Philip goes to call his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, becoming one of the first evangelists. As Nathanael arrives, Jesus says some things about him, showing that he knows Nathanael, before they had even met. And then Jesus reveals that he saw Nathanael sitting under a tree even before Philip had called him.

In this message, I share my own experience of being called by Jesus to follow him. It is not definitive, but provides just one experience of being called and (eventually) responding to God’s call.

Jesus remains the same today – he knows us and sees us. He knows where we are in life and in our relationship with him, and he sees where we are and what we are doing. And it with this knowledge of us, that Jesus calls us to follow him.

I thus urge you also to respond to the call of Jesus – to follow him. Put in the effort to build a relationship with Jesus – talk with him, read the Bible, come to church, talk with Christian friends, think about Jesus. He is ready and waiting for you. He is calling you to follow him. You just need to reach back.

Featured image from https://www.followmeretreat.org/

God’s handiwork

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Now and then, it is good for us to reflect on who we are in Christ – our identity – and what God wants from us – our purpose. Ephesians 2:10 gives as a wonderful opportunity to do that:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Let’s start with the idea that we – that you – are God’s handiwork. The Greek word behind ‘handiwork’ implies creative activity – sculpting a statue, painting a painting, writing a poem. It is about intense and skilled craftsmanship. This is what you are – you are a great work of art by the greatest artist/poet who ever lived. You are not merely a product of your genes or your environment; you are not an accident; you are not a coincidence – you are one of God’s masterpieces, unique in every way, and beautifully crafted.

Paul tells us that we are created in Christ Jesus. Christ is “the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15), thus we are the second born – Christ’s brothers and sisters. Indeed, Paul writes that “we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17). Jesus Christ is our oldest brother; we are his younger sisters and brothers. He leads the way and we follow in his footsteps.

Paul says that we are created to good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Before we were born, before we were even conceived, God already had us in mind. He knew what kind of person you would become, with your unique genetic makeup and life experiences, and the hand of God shaping the course of our life. God already has in mind what he wants us to do in the world. I do not think this means our lives are scripted and preset; but it does mean that there is already a pattern of what we are each able to do in unique ways that bring a smile to God’s face.

And what are these things God has prepared for us to do? Good works. It is striking that Paul writes here about good works, because in the preceding verses he has been emphatic that are saved by faith and not through good works. But now he closes off this passage by saying that we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works. That is the purpose for our creation.

What constitutes a ‘good work’. Let’s refer to the great commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), where Jesus says, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. A good work, fundamentally, is anything that shows God’s love for our neighbour. We are each created uniquely to love uniquely, to do unique good works. The good that you are able to do is different from the good I can do. You were uniquely created by the great Craftsman to do unique good, loving works, that God prepared in advance for you and only you to do in a uniquely ‘you’ way.

Let us meditate on Paul’s words:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Featured image from: https://feeds.croatia.hr/epic-week/experience/check-fascinating-handiwork/