The auditorium lights dimmed and Benjamin Creme's smiling countenance hushed the audience into a perfect silence.
They had come to the Masonic Temple in North Hollywood to hear this latter-day John the Baptist prepare the way for what he said was the Christ's impending worldwide public appearance.
Creme, a Scotsman who for 11 years has said that the Christ has returned and is alive and living in London, says he receives direct communications from Christ by mental telepathy. As the words are received, the 70-year-old Creme speaks them into a tape recorder.
Many in the audience of about 150 waited expectantly as the tape was readied. Many believed they were about to hear the words of Christ himself--not the resurrected Jesus of Christianity, but the "Ascended Master" that Creme calls the "Maitreya" or world teacher.
"My dear friends, once again I am with you and I am happy to be so." The voice was deep and resonant. The Scottish accent was unmistakably Creme's.
In the end, the voice, speaking in the first person, offered assurances that his appearance would not be long-delayed. The tape ended with a first-person benediction: "Please receive the blessing of Christ."
Ever since Creme announced more than a decade ago in Los Angeles that the Maitreya had created (not inhabited) a physical body and descended from his mountainous realm in the Himalayas to live in London, the world has awaited proof of Creme's statements.
His 1982 news conference created an international sensation. Creme and his followers raised $260,000 to place full-page ads in 17 newspapers, including The Times, announcing Christ's return within two months. Nearly 100 reporters from major networks, magazines and newspapers turned out for Creme's announcement.
"I had enormous coverage in the media, a fantastic response," Creme said this week in an interview. "The story was like wildfire in the United States and in Holland. They were interested in me and my story."
But interest has waned markedly since those heady days. When the Maitreya failed to appear, many of Creme's followers became disillusioned. His trip this week to Los Angeles barely caused a ripple.
Still, Creme carries on what he calls his service. He travels hundreds of thousands of miles from his London home at least six months of the year. The Tara Center in Los Angeles, a New Age religious organization, arranges his all-expenses-paid U.S. lecture tours. It also publishes and sells Creme's books and tapes. Creme says he receives no royalties from the books and tapes, or fees for his talks. His sole income, he said, is from his paintings and his wife's salary as a teacher in England.
For more than 30 years, Creme has been a follower of New Thought philosophy and the teachings of Alice Bateman and Helena Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society. Creme's teachings appealed to many in the New Age movement. But after the 1982 debacle, some participants in the movement backed away from Creme.
Nonetheless, Creme predicted again this week that the Maitreya would soon appear on worldwide television, although this time he avoided giving a specific date.
"I speak with total, absolute conviction that what I say is true," Creme told the North Hollywood audience. "If I'm correct, then you don't have long to wait for the proof of what I am about to say.
"He (Maitreya) will mentally overshadow the minds of all humanity at the same time. Your mind will hear him in your own language. There will be hundreds of thousands of instantaneous miracle cures," said Creme, who believes the Maitreya awaits only an invitation and a modicum of peace on Earth.
While skeptics smirk, some Christians wonder if Creme--a grandfatherly man with wavy white hair--is the Antichrist or is preparing the way for the Antichrist. Ridiculous, Creme says.
For Creme, who was raised in a nominally Jewish household and had his bar mitzvah late in his youth, the true Messiah is the Maitreya, a master or teacher of wisdom who has lived for many tens of thousands of years.
During Jesus' ministry on Earth, Creme said, it was the Maitreya's "overshadowing" inspiration and energy that enabled Jesus to perform the miracles and possess the divine insight attributed to him by Christians. Other great thinkers and religious leaders, including Buddha and Confucius, were inferior to the Maitreya as a disciple is inferior to his master, he said.
"My task is to prepare the way, somehow. My task is to make contact with the public," Creme told the audience.
Creme laughs off those who ask whether he is the returned John the Baptist. "No. This is my first go at this job," he told the audience during a sometimes rambling 1 1/2-hour lecture.
Creme blamed the world press for Maitreya's reclusive behavior. If the media had made even a perfunctory effort to search London for the Maitreya in 1982, he said, the world teacher would have viewed the effort as an invitation and stepped forward.