When someone goes to the gym, there's a confluence of expectations. There's a purpose (to work out), a goal (to increase health, strength, or ability in some way), and an expectation (to be challenged, whether by the workout itself or by a trainer guiding the workout).
We should carry those same things - purpose, goals, and expectation of challenge - into worship with us. How often do you hear yourself say, "I didn't get anything out of worship today," but you didn't put anything into worship either? I can't walk into the gym, sit there for an hour while I watch others lift weights, perform yoga, and spin their hearts out, and then leave expecting that I should reap the benefits of those activities. Even if I go and do all those things without effort or intent, I can't really expect much benefit to come from the activities. Only when we undertake things with purpose, goals, and expectation of challenge do we "get something" out of worship.
Now, that's not because we're the primary performers in worship; in fact, we're not. God is the one who shows up in conversation with our prayers, in inspiration for our songs, in presence through Word and Sacrament. Yet, like any relationship, we can't expect to reap the full benefits of God's selflessness unless we're also investing in God and the experience of engaging with God.
I'm currently at the Lutheran Student Movement National Gathering, where our theme is "The Dis/Comforting God." Micah 6:8 provides the foundation for this theme, where God's comfort for God's people comes through expectation of commitment to justice, mercy, and humility. God's comfort to some is a discomfort to others, but that doesn't make it any less divine. It's uncomfortable for me as a straight, white, cisgendered man to center the voices of others because I'm so used to the privilege of having my voice (and voices much like mine) at the center of the conversation. Yet, the discomfort in committing to that inclusive reality doesn't make it less holy. Through the commitment, and even through the resulting discomfort, God offers comfort in a fashion that's entirely alien to my expectations and often precisely what I didn't know that I needed.
We should enter each worship opportunity with the same intentionality. Coming as a spectator in the gym isn't discomforting. Even doing the same workout in the same place with the same vigor each time won't lead to significant growth. But when you have a purpose, united with a goal and the expectation that you'll be challenged, you're willing to try new exercises, take new classes, increase you reps, change your speed, alter your weight, or use time differently, which will certainly lead to different results.
When we come into worship, expecting only to be comfortable, we're not open to the transformation God offers. But when you come with a purpose (to worship God), guided by a goal (to grow in God's image) and informed by the expectation that fulfilling this purpose and achieving this goal will challenge and change you, then you'll invest in the prayers, the songs, the sermon, the readings, the sacraments, and the rituals in ways that shape and reshape your life. The fullness of God isn't found in comfort, but in the discomfort where we're challenged to become more like God, more full of the Spirit, more reflective of the face of Christ. This takes a full engagement of the worship opportunity. Come to be discomforted and see what you get out of worship. Come to be discomforted and feel how you're spiritually fed.
Of course, this shouldn't stop with worship. This commitment to the challenge of transformation should permeate our entire lives as people of faith. We can begin in worship and see how that practice infuses the rest of our week as well.
So, on this last day of 2017, consider what kind of future you want as a child of God. What's your purpose? What are your goals? How might God challenge you to bring about more divine life in you? Rather than a resolution in 2018, seek the challenge of resurrection that can only be accomplished by God. That's the kind of abundant life available to us in God through Christ. Don't settle for anything less.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.