A recently completed Gallup poll found that fewer than half of U.S. adults say they belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. To be precise, the Gallup pollsters reported that just 47% of those surveyed — belong to a place of worship. This is the lowest participation rate among adults since Gallup began asking the question more than 80 years ago.

          We did not need a Gallup poll to know that church attendance has declined over the past years.  We know it less by the empty pews among us on a Sunday morning and more by the empty words, the anger, and the lack of truth that surround us.

          We have members of Congress encouraging continued unrest in cities scared by rioting over injustice in the legal system. We social media sharing the concept that everyone has “their truth,” and any challenge to expression of “my truth” should end with the challenger being canceled.  Why are we experiencing such discouraging and divisive trends in society? I believe it all relates back to the results of our opening Gallup poll results: fewer than half of all American adults participate in the worship God.

          I read a quote the other day that takes the Gallup poll results and consequential bad behaviors we are experiencing and summed them up this way, “Every time we turn from the truth of God, we introduce hell into the world.  Every time we call evil “good” and good “evil,” we create little pockets of hell on earth” (Alisa Childers, Another Gospel).  Those are some sobering and somber words to contemplate.

          In fact, those words are so somber, we might choose to be discouraged and disheartened and feel like giving up? This is our choice.  We can open our hands to God and fall at his feet or we can shake our fist at him and walk away.  We have only those two choices.

Now before you make your choice, we need to think about one thing.  Evil and suffering are ugly realities.  They are the natural byproduct of sin.  But Jesus chose to step into muck of the world, became human, lived as we have lived, suffered, and died for us.  He died not as an example for us to follow but as a Savior who would lead those who were willing into a place of peace.

In a world of doubts and shouts about “my truth,” God said, “Wait!  Listen!  I love you. And to demonstrate my love, I am sending my Son to you.  Listen to him.”  This is not “my truth.”  This is “the truth.”

The first words Jesus shared were, “Repent.  For the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 3:2).  A dream sermon, just nine words.

When Jesus taught us how to pray, Jesus made the focus of the prayer on the kingdom. “Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Jesus was and is all about the kingdom.  Today, when we read from the Gospel of Matthew, the focus of Jesus’ teaching was on the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus told a story, a parable, to teach us what the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, was like. 

Jesus said, ““The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way.  26 But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared.” (Matthew 13:24-26).  There are only two seeds, the wheat and the tares.

Jesus would explain that the man in the story is him, Jesus.  The good seed, the wheat, are those who listen to him and follow him.  The field is the earth.  The enemy was Satan.  The tares were those who do not follow Jesus and do evil. 

We could then read verse 24 this way, “The kingdom of heaven becomes real on earth whenever Jesus sends his followers into the world.”

Let’s think about what Jesus said in context to our opening observation, “Every time we turn from the truth of God, we introduce hell into the world.”  Compare that with the sentiment in what Jesus was saying, “Every time we turn to the truth of God, we introduce heaven into the world.”  We become most like Christ and our presence creates a space most like heaven when we enter the world with its pain and suffering, not to be weighed down by it or consumed by it, but to help bear the burden others are experiencing. 

Every time we fight evil with good, we create little pockets of heaven on earth.  So the story Jesus tells makes it clear, there are only two choices, the wheat or the tares. What is the consequence of that choice? There are only two outcomes, heaven or hell.

          So we have an understanding of the first level to this parable.  One choice between two options with remarkably different outcomes.  But there is a second level to this parable. The seed sown by Jesus is represented by wheat.  The seed sown by Satan is represented by tares.  Tares are not just some ordinary weeds we might find in our garden.  Tares were a particular type of plant that resembled wheat.  Tares produce a seed that if combined with the wheat and milled into flour could make the flour poisonous.  In this story, the good fruit of the field grows along side the poisonous, and, to the untrained eye, they look alike.  This means in our life, those who follow Jesus and those who do not may have similar appearances.  The difference will be found in whose voice each listen and the fruit they produce.  So when we come to church as part of the proud 47%, the significance of that decision is that we are choosing to publicly express the desire to listen to the truth and seeking to introduce heaven onto the earth.  The wheat is to be the wheat.  That is the second level of this parable.

          Now in this parable, Jesus said the wheat and tares sprung up side-by-side.  To the untrained eye, the plants in the beginning look similar but to the trained eye they are noticeable different.  In the story, Jesus said, “27 So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’  The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them” (Matthew 13:27-29).

          Jesus believed that his servants, perhaps Jesus’ apostles, would come to recognize the difference early on between the wheat and tares and would believe it best to rip the invasive tares from the field. This is what we would do in our gardens even it meant sacrificing a few of the plants we had sown.  But this is not the way of God. 

Jesus told his apostles, “37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:37-40).

The desire of God is that none of those who are his, none of the wheat, shall be lost even if that means those who are not his are allowed a time to thrive.  In war, the President and military may speak about collateral damage, meaning the innocent people who died when the enemy was attacked.  God does not believe in collateral damage.  He is unwilling to lose even one who follows Jesus. This is a demonstration of the love of God and gives us the first of two reasons for God allowing the tares to exist for a time.  We will cover the second reason in the moment.

The consequence of God’s love is that none who follow Jesus will be lost, but for a time, the tares, evil, will be present on earth.  Although the kingdom of heaven has been inaugurated through the sowing of the gospel, that alone has not removed evil from the earth.  Some theologians refer to our current state as already part of the kingdom of heaven but not yet fully realized.  We are wheat growing in the field and are already part of the kingdom.  But that one field is shared with the tares which are not part of the kingdom.  This is the not yet part of our life.

In the story, the parable, Jesus said, “30 Let both (wheat and tares) grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matthew 13:30).

Jesus explained that, “39 The enemy who sowed them [the tares] is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. 40 Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. 41 The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:39-43a).

Jesus’ explanation means that we will not see the elimination of evil in our time, unless we are here when Jesus returns.  Therefore, we should expect spiritual warfare to be evident in our everyday life.  The Apostle Paul saw this spiritual warfare and the effect it could have on believers.  Paul said, “ We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11).

We, who follow Jesus, are not crushed, do not despair, are not abandoned, and are not destroyed by the existence and consequences of the tares in the field. We know that when we are able to share Jesus “we introduce heaven into the world.”

This leads us to our final point which is the second reason God permits the tares to exist for this time. As Jesus told this story, this parable, his audience was a mixture of his followers and non-believers.  The field was already composed of wheat and tares. When Jesus concluded the story, he said, “He who has ears, let him hear! (Matthew 13:43b).  The crowd hearing this story had their hearts tested and were given the opportunity to receive God’s divine revelation, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In hearing that message and receiving it, God’s word has the power to transform the person’s heart and come into God’s kingdom as changed person, a new creating. God has the power to transform the tares into wheat.

Consider for a moment, that Jesus first miracle was changing water into wine.  This was a demonstration of the power of Christ to change one substance into another.  It was a powerful demonstration to bypass the entirety of the growing process for grapes and to take water useful only to wash a utensil and make it into a beverage to celebrate the marriage of the groom and his bride.  For those who have ears and hear the message of Christ, there is the reality of a transformed life from tare to wheat.  God has the power to transform anyone.  This is the second reason God will not remove the tares from the field until the appointed time.

To hear and respond to the gospel means we must stop elevating our opinion, “my truth” over “the truth.”  To hear and respond to the gospel means we changed our mindset from want to God to help us our way to wanting God to be God.

All of us who claim Christ, at one time were tares.  But we heard the message of the gospel and became wheat.  We moved from introducing hell to earth to bringing pockets on heaven on earth.  We must continue to share the message of Christ so that others may be likewise changed and brought into the fullness of the kingdom.

I am glad you are here today whether you are wheat or a tare.  Let us pray together.