John the Baptist came to Gateshead. There was no grand reception at the Civic Centre. Suddenly he was just there, walking the streets. People gave him room as he walked along the pavement. They thought he was an old tramp, because, quite frankly, that’s what he looked like. He had an old ragged coat, tied around with string. He had shoes, but they were full of holes. He carried a stick and not much else. It was a long time since he’d had a shave or a haircut.
He stopped to ask someone the way. He was looking for a river or a lake, so they pointed him to Saltwell Park. (It was either that or the River Teams, but they felt that was a bit polluted and difficult to get to.) They told him, “everyone goes to Saltwell Park”, and John was well-pleased with that.
In the Park, he stood by the lake and started preaching. This was some sermon. He was shouting at all the people passing by:
You brood of vipers, you snakes in the grass, are you trying to escape punishment, and avoid the consequences of your actions? You are just so complacent. You think you’re OK, because everyone thinks you’re respectable people, but they don’t know what’s really going on.
Some people hurried along, trying to get away as quickly as they could.
Do you think you can escape? (he shouted at them) This applies to you as well.
But some people were interested, and they stopped to listen to him. They could see that he was genuine and that he had something important to say. And his words made them think about their own lives. It was as if he held up a mirror to their souls and they could see their faults and failings. And it wasn’t the obvious things that got to them. The mirror showed them the shadows, parts of themselves that they took for granted, but when they looked closely the shadows were bruises, and behind the bruises they found wounds that had never healed.
And they cried out to John about the pain in their souls and how they longed for the wounds to be healed.
The people asked him, “What should we do?” And John told them, “look out for each other. Care for your neighbours. Help out the ones who are struggling. Support those who are on their own. Be generous with what you have. Be generous in spirit.”
The debt-collectors for the pay-day loan companies asked him, “What should we do?” And John said, “look at your rates of interest! 1,700% or even 4,200% – that’s appalling! How do you expect the poor people of Bensham to pay that? You’re just trapping them in debt. It’s just not right. Charge interest at a sensible level. Don’t impose more and more penalties.”
And the parents asked him, “What should we do?” And John replied, “care for your kids. Be someone they can look up to. Put them first in your lives, before the things you use to escape. Give the kids boundaries.”
A man shouted from the crowd, “I would have expected you to tell people to stop swearing and drinking and taking drugs. That’s what you should be telling them. They should follow the Ten Commandments and go to Church. Then everything would be OK.”
And John replied, “You are called to be God’s children, to be loving and generous to each other. It’s not about obeying religious laws, but about the way you treat God’s children. If you want the negatives, it’s about not oppressing those who are vulnerable, not exploiting them, not getting ahead at other people’s expense. You read the Bible – it’s all in there.
“The good news is that when you turn to God, God welcomes you. God loves you so much, and he wants you to love everyone else. When things feel really bad, and you can see no way out, turn to God. When you realise that you have done things wrong, turn to God. When you discover that you have lived life in the wrong way, turn to God. When you want your life to change, turn to God.”
John added, “I am just getting ready for the One. He’s coming here soon. Watch out for him. He is truly Great. He is LOVE in capital letters, and full of light, but that means that where there is lack of love, the light shows up your darkness. So deal with the darkness before he comes.”
And there were people standing by who did want a better life, who did want to change. So John took them into the lake and baptised them.
Until the last park-keeper in Saltwell Park came by and chased them out of the water.