Let’s talk about balloons for a moment. Do you remember how much you liked balloons as a child? Spongebob and Patrick really like balloons.
If you don’t know who I’m talking about, consider yourself blessed. They liked balloons so much, they decided to “borrow” one from a local vendor.
It wasn’t until much later that they realized their “borrowing” was, in fact, stealing.
And it wasn’t until even later than that that they realized it was Free Balloon Day in their town, so it wasn’t even stealing after all.
Our fascination with balloons doesn’t end when childhood ends. I know plenty of adults who look forward to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade every year.
As you may well know, that parade includes dozens and dozens of giant balloons depicting famous cartoon characters from today and from years past.
And I know plenty of grown-ups who are intrigued by hot air balloons, be it watching them from the ground or riding in them in the air.
I guess we don’t really outgrow balloons as we get older. We just require bigger.
But I remember, as a child, one of those life-altering, “aha” moments that had to do with balloons. You see, I liked having balloons.
I liked holding them. I liked them for decoration. I even liked playing volleyball with them, seeing if a friend and I could keep one afloat.
But a whole new world was opened to me the first time I blew one up and, instead of tying the knot, let it go.
First of all, the noise it made was perhaps what it might sound like if a giant passed gas. That right there was enough to entertain any young boy.
It still is today. And I loved watching the balloon expel the air as it flew helter-skelter across the room. Who knew where it might land?
Who knew whom it might hit? That was hours of entertainment right there.
And then the balloon would return to its original state. In that condition, the balloon was really no fun at all. It needed to be inflated.
It needed that air pumped into it. It needed that surface tension, that air stretching its material—almost making it uncomfortable.
The balloon was seemingly rejecting the inflation. We had to tie that knot, or the balloon would revert back to what we might call “default mode”.
That’s how you might refer to the smallish, wilty, and flabby state of in the deflated balloon. That’s its natural state.
Without some outside exertion, the balloon will go back to that state. It’s the default mode for the balloon.
Now, when we talk about default mode, you might be prone to think of computers.
All computers have this sort of base foundation, this default state which they began with—and to which they will revert without some sort of outside influence.
This leads to an interesting question. Do humans have a “default mode”? Do we have some state of existence or lifestyle to which we will naturally revert?
What is our default mode without some sort of outside exertion or influence? And what sort of influence might we require?
Author Timothy Keller, along with some help from renowned theologian Martin Luther, has some insights to help with these questions.
Allow me to read an excerpt from Keller’s book, Prodigal God. Incidentally, tonight we will be studying the passage known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
This book is a primary resource I am using for that study. Here’s the excerpt I want you to hear this morning. (Read Keller, 128-129.)
So religion is the “default mode” of the human heart. It’s an interesting concept, wouldn’t you say? Now, let’s think about the Bible.
Who were the most “religious” people we will find in the Bible? Were they not the Pharisees? They were kings of the “obey God to gain His favor” movement.
Now, this morning, we will look at a famous encounter between Jesus and one of these Pharisees. It’s a very familiar passage.
In fact, whether you have been in church every week of your life or only sparingly or never at all, I’ll bet you will recognize one of the verses.
So let’s turn to the Gospel of John, chapter three. By now, you’ve probably realized that they verse I mentioned was, in fact, John 3:16.
But we are going to get a little bit of context for this verse. So we’ll begin with the first verse of the chapter. You look along as I read. (Read John 3:1-21.)
Enter Nicodemus. What do we learn about him, right off the bat? First of all, we read that he is a Pharisee.
As we already mentioned, these folks were highly religious. They were strict adherents to the Jewish legal code.
In fact, they even wrote some of their own interpretations and variations of God’s laws. In truth, they began to think that they themselves were the law.
Moreover, se see that Nic was a member of the Jewish ruling council. This would have been the Sanhedrin.
The majority of the Sanhedrin was made up of a group known as the Sadducees.
They were the aristocratic landowners of the Jewish community. The Pharisees were more devout and were, supposedly, the champions of the little guys.
Now, since the Pharisees made up a minority of this ruling council, it’s safe to say that ol’ Nic carried some significant weight with his peers.
We read that Nicodemus decided to approach Jesus. This was most curious, as the Pharisees were already developing a healthy disdain for Mary and Joseph’s boy.
Jesus scoffed at their religious piety, even going so far as to befriend some who were not only irreligious, but also irreverent and immoral.
He claimed that His mission was to rescue sinners, but certainly they were not the type in need of rescuing—especially compared to those tax collectors and harlots.
Therefore, it stands to reason that Nic would come to Jesus “at night”. His cohorts wouldn’t be happy about this, so he keeps it on the downlow.
He is obviously hesitant. He is obviously scared. But we have to admit, Nic is seeking something. He has a different outlook on Jesus than his compadres.
He addresses Jesus as “Rabbi”. Now, plenty of other folks were doing that. It was a moniker that connoted authority. A rabbi was a teacher, an expert in the scriptures.
So Nic is offering up flattering words that no Pharisee would ever think to offer up.
He has seen something in Jesus. He recognizes that the signs Jesus has done—already in John He has turned water into wine—were nothing to sneeze at.
Surely Jesus must have come from God. So, it would seem, Nic is interested in a conversation to learn more. But we don’t really know his angle.
In verse 3, Jesus speaks, and it’s quite interesting. He doesn’t really address what Nicodemus said to Him. He does this a lot, you know.
Jesus tends to get to the heart of the matter. We come to Him thinking we need Him to handle some problem, but He tells us what our real problem is.
So here’s what happens. Nic basically tells Jesus, “I’ve seen the miracles you have done. You have to have come from God. There’s no other way.”
And Jesus replies with, “You know, Nicodemus, to enter God’s kingdom you have to be born again.” It seems as though they are on two different wavelengths.
In truth, Jesus is on a different level, and Nicodemus has yet to join Him. To be sure, Nic didn’t really think Jesus was talking about being physically reborn.
He just didn’t know what Jesus meant at all. Jesus is speaking about a spiritual rebirth, but all Nic knows about is obeying earthly rules.
He is doubly confused. First of all, why is Jesus talking about entering the kingdom of God? Nic probably just came to find a little more info about Him.
Secondly, what is all this “born again” stuff? Nic knew how to get in good with God.
You had to obey all the rules. Here’s what Nicodemus didn’t know. You see, he showed up that night to talk about Jesus.
Instead, Jesus has started talking about Nicodemus—where his life is off track and what he needs to do about it.
So be careful when you come to Jesus to talk with Him about your agenda. He’s always ready and willing to talk, but He’s going to determine the subject matter.
Since Nicodemus was confused, Jesus elaborates. He offers up an explanation of this whole “born again” concept. And this is good for us.
That’s a phrase we throw around regularly in Christian circles. But it might be good to make sure we understand what we’re talking about.
You see, everyone is “born of water”. You moms probably all remember how the labor and delivery process started. Your water broke.
We’re talking about natural, physical pregnancy here. We are all a byproduct of that. But Jesus says we must also be “born again”.
This second birth is being “born of Spirit”. This draws us back to our OT passage from earlier. Do you remember God’s word through the prophet Ezekiel?
He said that there would come a day when He, meaning God, would remove the heart of stone from His people.
He would replace it with a heart of flesh. In fact, He says He will give them a new heart, and that He will put a new spirit in them.
He gets even more specific by saying that He will put His Spirit within His people.
Until that happens—God putting a new heart within you, one that beats for Him, and putting His Spirit in you—you are not “born of Spirit”. You are not born again.
Jesus compares this notion to the wind. We don’t physically see the wind. We never have and never will. But we regularly see the effects of the wind.
Likewise, we don’t physically see the Spirit of God. But we darn sure know when someone is filled with the Spirit.
Flesh gives birth to flesh, and Spirit gives birth to Spirit. When someone is controlled by his or her own flesh, eventually the sin nature will win out.
Humans, in their own strength, can live godly lives for only so long. Eventually they will return to that default mode.
They will revert to some sort of religion—even a religion with no god at all—in order to justify their own behavior and look out for themselves.
But not so with the Holy Spirit living within a person who has trusted in Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
God said, in verse 27 of the Ezekiel passage, that His Spirit will move you to follow My decrees and keep My laws.
It’s no obligation. We are moved by love and power to obey. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that this sort of rebirth must take place.
And so, Nicodemus essentially responds with a, “Huh?” He just doesn’t get it.
This is a foreign concept to him. It shouldn’t be, because as we have already seen it was all right there in the OT scriptures.
Nic had access to those scriptures. In fact, he was an expert in and a teacher of those scriptures. So here we have a teacher who doesn’t know the right things to teach.
Now this is a sad commentary on Israeli society. And Jesus even says as much. “You are Israel’s teacher, and you don’t understand these things?”
Look, there’s nothing wrong with all the rules that Nicodemus studied and did his best to obey. We most definitely should obey God’s rules.
But there are two problems with these rules. First of all, we cannot obey them. Full obedience is not a possibility in our sinful flesh.
This ties into the second problem, namely that obedience to rules has no power to save us from sin, to deliver us from Hell, or to put us in right standing with God.
Any obedience we could offer up is nothing more than a partial obedience marred by our continued sinfulness.
Obedience tainted by sin is not really obedience at all. Whatever checklist of rules we may fulfill, our sin still separates us from God.
We need the Father’s plan of salvation, the filling of the Holy Spirit, and—as we are about to see—the obedient work of the Son, Jesus Christ.
Now, Nicodemus may not have understood all this, but Jesus makes it clear in verse 11 that those who are in Him will understand.
In Jesus, the scriptures that Nic loves so much come to life and find their fulfillment.
In verse 13, Jesus tells Nic that He is “heaven come to earth,” so to speak. He became earthly to lead us to heaven—to a place of spiritual relationship with God.
If Nicodemus cannot understand the earthly revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, He will never understand the truth of spiritual salvation.
Essentially, Jesus is telling Nicodemus, “You are right. I’m from God. But the real question, Nic, is why did I come?”
He is letting Nicodemus know that it’s not all about the miracles, which Nic referenced in his first words from verse 2.
The focal point—the crux of it all—is what follows all the miracles and teachings.
That’s what Jesus gets into, starting with verse 14. Once again, He references the OT. This time, it’s from the book of Numbers, specifically chapter 21.
What Jesus is doing on earth—and what He will eventually do on the cross—had all been foretold in the scriptures. Again, Nicodemus should have known that.
Do you know this story from Numbers? The people of Israel, as they were prone to do, once again complained to God and rebelled against Him in the desert.
So God sends poisonous snakes into their camp. Just thinking about this incident makes me wonder why in the world we will so casually disregard God and His Word.
The snakes bit a lot of folks, and many died. The people cried out to Moses and to God for help, so God instructed Moses to fashion a bronze snake.
He was to put it high upon a pole, and anyone who looked upon the snake would live, even if they were bitten.
Now let’s get back to our passage from John. Notice some important statements, found in verses fourteen through seventeen.
First of all, Jesus told Nicodemus that He must be lifted up “as the snake was”.
Well, how was the snake lifted up? First of all, the snake was on a pole, exposed on high for all to look at.
Secondly, notice that the snake on the pole identified with the very thing that was killing the people of Israel.
Would it not have made more sense to put on that pole some image of a cure, of life, or even of a mongoose? But no, it had to be this way.
Jesus, on the cross—high and exposed for all to see, identified with our killer—sin.
The Bible tells us that He became sin on our behalf. The consequences of the snakes were dealt with by looking at the snake on the pole.
And the consequences of sin were dealt with by looking at the Savior, bearing the sins of the world, on the cross.
Jesus then states, in verse 15, that whoever believes in—looks to, trusts—Jesus will have eternal life. The kingdom will be theirs. Heaven will be theirs.
This process of being “born again” found its fulfillment in God putting His Spirit in us. But, the process begins by looking to Jesus for our hope and salvation and life.
And then we get to the famous John 3:16. Notice that this verse is all about a relationship, not a religion. “For God so loved the world,” it says.
God loved the world, not merely the Jews or the religious or the obedient ones.
God doesn’t love the world in response to the way the world obeys Him. He just loves. That’s the language of a relationship.
How deep is the Father’s love? He gave His “one and only” Son. We see another OT reference here. Isaac was Abraham’s “one and only Son,” whom Abraham loved.
In gut-wrenching fashion, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his one and only.
In equally gut-wrenching fashion, God the Father sacrificed His one and only. With Abraham, there was a substitute to spare Isaac.
For God the Father, there would be no substitute to spare Jesus. Yes, Jesus came to rescue the world. He didn’t come to condemn the world, based on verse 17.
Jesus is breaking down Nicodemus’s barrier of religion. The Pharisees would rather God’s Chosen One come into the world and destroy the infidels.
They would rather God come down, look upon everyone, separate the morally upright from those who aren’t, and then strike down the latter.
Condemnation is the subject of religion’s sermons. But Jesus came preaching life and love and salvation. And do you know what?
Nicodemus, the standard of religious rectitude, needed that life and love and salvation. Jesus came to save the druggie and the deacon.
His final words to Nicodemus begin with verse 18. Notice it’s been a while since Nic said anything! He begins speaking about belief. That’s important.
Notice that those who trust in and live for Jesus are not condemned, while those who do not stand condemned already.
We’ve talked about the notion of default mode. Well, in relation to God, our default mode is condemnation.
Without Jesus’ outside influence, we all stand condemned before God. It’s right there in verse 18. We stand condemned already.
Jesus starts with the belief, and that’s where we must start. Too often we are guilty of teaching how to behave before we ever teach what to believe.
Behavior motivated by fear will eventually fail. Behavior motivated by love will be much stronger. So we must teach people to believe in the God who loves them.
Don’t merely believe in the fact that Jesus died. Believe that God so loved you. Believe that He did it to rescue you. Believe that He offers you something so greater than anything you could ever imagine. Trust. Entrust yourself to Him.
In the last few verses, Jesus talks about light and darkness. But this is not a plea for better behavior. Light came into the world—that’s the revelation of Jesus Christ.
But people, in their default mode, love darkness. Why? It’s because their deeds are evil. The darkness isn’t necessarily evil, but it hides the evil.
People don’t want to deal with sin. They don’t want it out in the open. So we mask it with religion. I’ll come to church and give my tithe, just don’t talk about my sin.
I’ll sing my songs, work VBS, teach Sunday School, and maybe even be a deacon, but I will not deal with my sin.
I’ll just go along hoping that all my good church works and good deeds make some sort of headway with God, but I will not deal with my sin.
I will not allow that to be exposed. And we all have our reasons. But you cannot be born again without honestly dealing with your sin.
God’s Spirit cannot enter you until your sin is dealt with. And your sin cannot be dealt with until you honestly come to Jesus.
And you cannot honestly come to Jesus if you are trying to mask your sin with religion. No, this is no plea for better behavior.
This is call from Jesus to exit the darkness and enter the Light. Nicodemus had to answer that call before he could enter the kingdom. So must we.
Tonight, we are going to resume Bible Study. I hope you’ll be here. Even if you’ve never come on a Sunday night, I hope you’ll be here.
We’ll be looking at that famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. In that story, there’s an elder brother who is a lot like Nicodemus.
He’s carefully obeyed all the rules, but it hasn’t really given him any sort of relationship with his father.
But, in that story, we’ll read about a younger brother who is nothing like Nicodemus.
In fact, he’s a lot more like someone we would read about in the next chapter of John, chapter four. I speak of the Samaritan woman at the well.
This younger brother was extremely irreligious. He was disrespectful to his father. He engaged in wild living. And yet, as different as he was from the older brother, much like him he also had no relationship with his father.
It doesn’t matter what path you are on. We all need Jesus. We all need to be honest about our sin. We all need to let down our guard and stop putting up a front.
Nicodemus went home that night, his head swirling I’m quite sure. I wonder if he slept a wink that night.
I wonder if some of us ought to be restlessly pondering this stuff ourselves. We’re talking about salvation here. That means we’re talking about what we believe.
Stop worrying about behavior for a second and ask yourself if the Jesus you claim is the same one we just read about.
And come back tonight—and I’m serious on this one. This is way too important to allow it to seep out of our minds and memories.
The enemy will try to do that to you. You need reinforcements. Would you pray with me? (Pray.)